HNN June 23, 2015
Calling Wednesday’s shootings in Charleston a “tragedy” makes this explosion of murderous violence seem like an accident. It isn’t an accident. It is the legacy of an excruciating history that began with racial slavery and continued through the post-Civil War campaign to maintain white supremacy – a campaign that has persisted to the present day and which shapes how many white Americans think about and respond to black Americans.
At the heart of Wednesday’s violence is America’s history of chattel slavery, a labor system built on violence, in which all whites were effectively authorized to do violence to African Americans in order to keep them at work and prevent them from challenging their enslavement. But this brutal system also produced rebellions. Whites – even those who never owned a slave – lived with the fear that that racial order might be turned upside down, destroying everything that they held dear. In other words, whites attributed to blacks the same desire for domination that they themselves were exercising. It is no accident that the alleged shooter is reported to have said: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”
The history of chattel slavery, upended in the Civil War, was followed by the history of Reconstruction, a moment during which America’s racial hierarchy was unsettled, and black people were able to claim a measure of political and civil equality. But the moment was a brief one. White conservatives all over the South, abetted by many white northerners, denounced the new interracial Southern governments as exactly the “world turned upside down” that they had feared during slavery. They overthrew those governments by force and fraud and set about reconstructing white supremacy as best they could without the law of slavery as a foundation.
The Reconstruction years thus gave way to another history: the continuing struggle by white supremacist activists to create and enforce Jim Crow’s exclusion, segregation, and lynching. This struggle took a lot of work, and it required that whites remain intensely fearful of blacks. One of the greatest victories of white supremacy in this era was to persuade whites that they confronted an epidemic of black men raping white women. Despite overwhelming evidence that this claim was unfounded (especially as revealed by Ida B. Wells-Barnett), the fantasy that predatory black men routinely victimized white women became the justification for lynching. Those fears may have run deepest in the South, where the great majority of the black population resided well into the twentieth century, but they found a home in the North and West as well.
As Jim Crow began to crack beneath the blows of the post-WWII black freedom movement, politicians drew on that history to sustain white racial domination. Scare campaigns against the Civil Rights Movement promised that civil and political equality would unleash black men’s alleged sexual ambitions and, once again, overturn a well-established racial hierarchy. The power and persuasiveness of those arguments helped explain the residential segregation and redlining across the North that lies at the heart of so many of today’s inequities. It lay behind the differential sentencing laws for powder and crack cocaine and undergirded the fearful discussion of “super-predators” in the 1980s and 1990s. It is still used to justify the overwhelmingly disproportionate police scrutiny, arrest, and conviction and incarceration of African Americans.
America’s long racial history of imagining blacks as fearsome, criminal, and bent on political and sexual domination has never gone away. This is not because the fantasy is real, but because it has played such a powerful role for hundreds of years. No wonder that it is so readily wielded as a weapon, whether through cynicism, ignorance, or ruthlessness. No wonder that its murderous version of history was so easy for Dylann Roof to find and embrace.
Dylan Roof’s murderous night is not simply a South Carolina tragedy. It is an expression and a consequence of American history – a history that the nation has hardly reckoned with, much less overcome.
As Dylann Roof massacred nine people in cold blood after they studied the Bible together on Wednesday night at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, he told a church member who survived that he felt compelled to carry out the murders. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” Roof said. “And you have to go.” We might take such a bizarre statement as a sign that this act of racial terrorism was also the act of a lunatic. But if Dylann Roof is deranged, his derangement is deeply steeped in a history of white supremacy that has long expressed the threat of black economic and political power in sexual terms.
Apologists for slavery often contended that people of African descent were by nature bestial, and that they would surely revert to a state of savagery without the discipline of enslavement. These fears continued to haunt the white southern imagination through the era of emancipation and Reconstruction, as terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan gained support from significant segments of the white southern populace in the late 1860s by claiming they acted as forces of law and order against hordes of black thieves and rapists intent on causing mayhem and despoiling white women. In truth, there were no waves of black crime during Reconstruction, and the Klan was little more than the paramilitary arm of the resurgent southern Democratic Party. The Klan existed to intimidate, brutalize, and murder economically ambitious and politically assertive black people and their allies, and its presence faded in the early 1870s as much because white Democrats had succeeded in retaking control of many southern state governments as because the federal government cracked down on the organization.
The unmistakable link between fears of black power and fears of the sexual violation of white women, however, not only outlasted Reconstruction but became an increasingly prominent element of white southern racial pathology as the nineteenth century progressed. Even the so-called Redemption of state governments by white Democrats could not entirely contain black political activism, and the chronically depressed southern economy produced masses of economically insecure white southerners who felt that black agricultural and industrial workers took too many of the region’s scarce resources, lacked proper deference to white people, and did just a bit too well for themselves. The widespread anxiety among white men that they would not be able to provide for their wives and children easily transformed into concerns that they would not be able to protect their wives and children. On the racially charged landscape of the post-emancipation South the logic of white supremacy called forth the violent response that it always did.
The phenomenon of lynching, which is America’s signature act of racial terror, began a noticeable rise in the 1880s and became epidemic by the turn of the twentieth century. And it was practically axiomatic in the minds of white southerners that such extralegal mob violence was necessary to clamp down on black sexual predators with designs on the bodies of white women. Even southern congressmen used such claims to defend lynchings. In the early 1920s, for example, Representative James Buchanan of Texas voiced his opposition to proposed federal anti-lynching legislation by denouncing “the damnable doctrine of social equality which excites the criminal sensualities of the criminal element of the Negro race and directly incites the diabolical crime of rape upon white women. Lynching follows as swift as lightning, and all the statutes of State and Nation cannot stop it.” Representative Thomas Upton Sisson of Mississippi agreed, asserting that white southern men “are going to protect our girls and womenfolk from these black brutes. When these black fiends keep their hands off the throats of the women of the South then lynching will stop.”
Such wildly racist delusions, not to mention the expressions of patriarchal control over white women, said far more about white men than they did about black men. Indeed, in light of the systematic rape of black women by white men dating back to the era of slavery, it takes no deep psychological insight to observe that the lurid horror of black rapists conjured by white southerners was more a matter of projection than of reality. The belief remained unshakable nonetheless, and those bold and courageous enough to observe that the threat of the black rapist was a myth placed themselves in tremendous danger. Most famously, when Tennessee journalist Ida B. Wells argued in the 1890s that most liaisons between white women and black men were consensual and that the specter of the black male rapist was a lie, a white mob destroyed the offices of her newspaper. Wells left the South altogether because she was sure she would be murdered.
The numbers of lynchings in the United States would eventually crest and then diminish over the course of the twentieth century, but the myth of the black rapist was a stubborn one to uproot. It was never far from the surface in white southern defenses of segregation during the Civil Rights Era, for instance, with the hostility to the prospect of integrated schools, swimming pools, and other public spaces often conveyed in terms of the idea that integration would mean “mongrelization,” as even black male children surely had their eyes on white girls. Wednesday’s attack in Charleston is plain evidence that the myth still thrives today, and that it is deadly.
What happened in Charleston is so rife with symbolism and so anchored in America’s racial past that it nearly leaves a person breathless. The shootings happened at a church that has long been the center of black activism in the state of South Carolina, in a city that was the heart of the mainland colonial transatlantic slave trade. That church is one that Denmark Vesey, who planned a thwarted slave rebellion, helped found in 1818, and that his son redesigned after whites burned the original building to the ground. The shootings happened one day after the 193rd anniversary of when Vesey’s rebellion would have transpired and two days before the Juneteenth holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. The shooter proudly placed a license plate on the front of his car bearing the Confederate battle flag that flew at full staff in front of the statehouse in Columbia even the day after the atrocity.
One smaller and perhaps less-observed symbolic element, however, may be the most telling. Dylann Roof was captured and arrested in the town of Shelby, North Carolina, which is the birthplace of author Thomas Dixon. Dixon’s most famous work, entitled The Clansman, glorifies the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan and imagines the organization as having saved the white South from a fusion of white abolitionist and black southern political rule and from legions of former slaves set on raping white women. Dixon’s book, published in 1905, was a vicious and mendacious act of distorted historical revisionism. But it was a powerful one. Ten years later it served as the source material for D.W. Griffith’s pathbreaking film The Birth of a Nation. The film places the attempted rape of a white woman by a former slave at the very core of the story, and it shows Klansmen as the saviors of white civilization from an oppressive government that is trying to forcibly impose black equality. The movie nearly singlehandedly prompted a national revival of the Ku Klux Klan. And it was a film that white audiences lined up for months to watch. That was true not only in the South. It was true everywhere in the United States. Fifty years after the Civil War ended, white Americans largely agreed that the nation born out of its ashes was one that rightfully belonged only to them.
Last week, Dylann Storm Roof murdered nine people in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in an act of white supremacist terror, once again introducing violence into a church with deep roots in the history of Charleston. Founded in 1818 as the first A.M.E. Church in the South and one of the largest black Methodist congregations in the country at the time, the church served as a symbol of black resistance to white supremacy from the moment of its founding. As such, it almost immediately drew the ire of white Charleston. As many have observed, the church’s revolutionary potential was realized in 1822, when it became implicated in the insurrection scheme planned by a free black man named Denmark Vesey. The very founding and existence of the church, however, was in itself a revolutionary and rebellious act.
Richard Allen founded America’s first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1816. Two years later, after disputes with the city’s Methodist church over the use of church funds and of its burial ground, black Charlestonians sought to form their own independent black church. In 1818, after being ordained in Philadelphia, a free black man named Morris Brown founded Charleston’s “African Church,” – it wasn’t until after the Civil War that it became known as Emanuel A.M.E. – which was affiliated with the A.M.E. Church. Over 4,000 black Charlestonians subsequently joined, making the African Church not only the oldest independent black congregation south of Maryland, but also the largest A.M.E. Church outside of Philadelphia. During the slave trade era, 2 of every 5 enslaved people imported into the United States came through the port of Charleston, and at the time of the African Church’s founding enslaved people constituted 70% of Charleston County’s population. In a city and region so deeply invested in the slave system, defying white authority and establishing an independent black church was a revolutionary act.
The African Church was a unique institution in black Charleston because of its ability to bring together people of African descent from different backgrounds. Charleston’s black community was often divided along class, color, and status lines – free people of color tried to distance themselves from slavery, people of mixed racial ancestry tried to derive advantage from their lighter complexions, and skilled artisans and business owners strove to increase social distance between themselves and unskilled free and enslaved laborers. The African Church’s congregation blurred the lines dividing black Charlestonians, fostering a sense of common, racial identity that may not have existed elsewhere in the city.
White authorities feared the church’s revolutionary potential, and almost immediately began enacting measures to counteract it. From the moment of its founding, the African Church dealt with regular and persistent harassment from whites and from Charleston authorities. Charleston’s city guard arrested 140 members and ministers in June 1818, including founder Morris Brown, for violating the states prohibition on educating slaves. Each of the ministers arrested were encouraged to leave the state, but also offered the opportunity to pay fines or face imprisonment. Morris Brown chose prison and remained in Charleston.
Two years later in 1820, a group of prominent white Charlestonians petitioned the state legislature to express their continued concern about the presence of an independent black church in the city. The petitioners called the legislature’s attention to the “evils” they felt the African Church represented. These men pointed to the “spacious building that has lately been erected in the immediate neighborhood of Charleston for the exclusive ownership of negroes and colored people, from means supplied to them by abolition societies.” The gathering of an all black congregation was a self-evident evil, one made all the more concerning by the congregants’ alleged affiliation with northern abolitionists. Whites feared the possibilities of free and enslaved blacks meeting together outside the supervision and control of whites. Not only did these petitioners want to prevent this black congregation from meeting, they sought specifically to prohibit “free negroes and colored people” from visiting “the eastern states for ordination and other religious pretences and again returning.” White Charlestonians felt they actively needed to prevent the independent worship of free and enslaved blacks.
In 1822, whites’ worst fears about the insurrectionary possibility of the African Church came to fruition in the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, a plot that deeply implicated the African Church. Many of the accused leaders of the conspiracy played active roles in the church, with some, like Vesey, serving as class leaders. The authors of the published Official Report of the plot condemned the African Church in no uncertain terms, placing blame squarely on the church for fostering an environment in which the seed of such an insurrection could grow. They decried its “inflammatory and insurrectionary doctrines” and accused the church of instilling “perverted religion and fanaticism” in its congregants. Many of the slave witnesses implicated the African Church as well, though certainly under pressure (if not torture) from their white interrogators, whose views towards the church were well known. An enslaved man named William Paul, in his testimony against one of the conspirators, claimed to have been told that “all those belonging to the African Church are engaged in the insurrection.”
Another published account of the proceedings that followed the Vesey plot’s discovery argued that “religious fanaticism has not been without its effect on this project,” and that “the secession of a large body of blacks from the white Methodist church, with feelings of irritation and disappointment, formed a hot bed” which gave “life and vigor” to insurrectionary ideas. It continued, noting “Among the conspirators, a majority of them belonged to the African Church and among those executed were several who had been class leaders.” In the immediate aftermath of the conspiracy, Charleston authorities directly tied the insurrectionary activity to the African Church. By all accounts, the Vesey conspiracy would not have been possible without the independent space and inspiration the African Church provided.
Denmark Vesey also allegedly used his knowledge of the Bible to denounce the slave system and recruit other slaves and free people of color to his insurrectionary plot. The Official Report accused Vesey of having “rendered himself familiar with all those parts of the scriptures, which he thought he could pervert to his purpose; and would readily quote them to prove that slavery was contrary to the laws of God.” Benjamin Ford, a white Charleston resident aged 15 or 16, told the court that when Vesey came into his family’s shop, he would readily discuss the hardships faced by blacks. Further, Ford claimed, “his general conversation was about religion which he would apply to slavery,” and “all his religious remarks were mingled with slavery.” Vesey, an active member of the African Church with experience with and exposure to the political and ideological currents of the Atlantic World, espoused radical religious views and was, according to the witnesses who cooperated with white authorities, unafraid to share them with any who would listen.
Deeply implicated in the Denmark Vesey insurrection conspiracy, the African Church was burned by whites when its role in the affair became clear. Though congregants attempted to re-establish the church, the state would soon reaffirm its commitment to outlawing black churches and schools. Black congregants continued to meet, often in secret, through the rest of the antebellum era. As in many other southern communities, the church was one of the first things to be re-established in the wake of the Civil War and emancipation.
Though the veracity of the details of the Vesey conspiracy remain contested, they reveal how the African Church specifically, and religion more broadly, figured significantly in the 1822 insurrection plot and in the lives of black Charlestonians. Many of the accused conspirators played active roles in the church. Beyond that, the African Church could have facilitated the planning of the conspiracy and fostered a sense of racial solidarity by bringing together members of Charleston’s black community across class, color, and status lines. The church may have even instilled in some black Charlestonians, both free and enslaved, a sense of religious duty to revolt against the slave system. At the most basic level, free and enslaved blacks leaving a white-controlled congregation in 1818 to form an independent black church in the heart of the South Carolina lowcountry and the slave South represented an inherently rebellious act. From the moment of its founding, Charleston’s African Church was a site of protest, rebellion, and revolutionary possibility. It was perhaps this status as a site of black independence and rebellion that made Emanuel A.M.E. a target.
The murder of 9 people there continues a long history of white violence.
A version of this article originally appeared on Marksism.
First item on the anti-embargo teleprompter: “But the embargo hasn’t worked. After half a century the Castro regime still stands. So why should we continue this failed policy?’
But who–besides the Castro lobby–ever claimed “regime-change” was the embargo’s rationale? To wit:
On January, 21, 1962 at Punta del Este Uruguay U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk gave a speech to the Organization of American States recommending the members join the U.S. in voting for an economic embargo of Cuba. In this speech there is not a single word–or even an inference–that regime-change was the embargo’s goal. “The United States objects to Cuba’s activities and policies in the international arena not its internal system or arrangements.” Indeed, Secretary Rusk went out of his way to stress that regime-change was NOTthe embargo’s goal.
The much-ballyhooed (mostly by KGB-trained Cuban DGI Colonel Fabian Escalante who authored “634 ways to Kill Castro”) Operation Mongoose also appears less serious and concerted under close scrutiny, and further supports Rusk’s public statements at the OAS meeting.
In fact, many of the actual participants in Operation Mongoose–both American and Cuban-exile—finally became convinced they were risking their lives on mostly intelligence-gathering missions rather than in trying to decapitate the Castro regime.
“I will never abandon Cuba to Communism!” declared JFK while addressing the recently ransomed Bay of Pigs freedom fighters and their families in Miami’s Orange Bowl Dec. 29, 1962. “I promise to deliver this Brigade banner to you in a free Havana!”
“That was the first time it snowed in the Orange Bowl,” later wrote CIA man named Grayston Lynch who was in attendance. Lynch helped train many of the Bay of Pigs freedom fighters and he landed on the beach with them, firing the first shots of the invasion. Then — from 1961-64 — he led several dozen commando raids into Cuba, as part of Operation Mongoose. Probably nobody had the “hands-on” experience with the actual nuts and bolts of Mongoose as Grayston Lynch. The “snow” comment appears in Lynch’s book Decision to Disaster published in 1998, after years of analyzing the entire Mongoose matter, and obviously refers to the “snow job” JFK was pulling by claiming he’d help overthrow Cuban communism.
The famous hearings in 1975 by the Frank Church Committee into the CIA’s deviltry as alleged by Castro’s intelligence Colonel Fabian Escalante lend further credence to Lynch’s claims:
“ In August 1975, Fidel Castro gave Senator George McGovern a list of twenty-four alleged attempts to assassinate him in which Castro claimed the CIA had been involved…The Committee has found no evidence that the CIA was involved in the attempts on Castro’s life enumerated in the allegations that Castro gave to Senator McGovern.”
In brief, the U.S. was mostly trying to contain Soviet-Cuban sponsored international terrorism. And on very sound grounds: every terror group from The Weathermen to Puerto Rico’s Macheteros, from Argentina’s Montoneros, to Colombia’s FARC, from the Black Panthers, to the PLO, to the IRA received training and funding from Castro.
Granted, while most were not immediately defeated they were certainly contained. Then for three decades the Soviet Union was forced to pump the equivalent of almost ten Marshall Plans into Cuba.This cannot have helped the Soviet Union’s precarious solvency or lengthened her life span.
Second item on the anti-embargo teleprompter: “But the Cold War’s over, for heaven’s sake! Why then continue this relic of that era?”
Because international terrorism still rages with slightly different sponsors and Castro’s Cuba is still prominent among them. A DEA report attributes half of the world’s cocaine supply to Columbia’s FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the largest, oldest and most murderous terrorist group in our Hemisphere whose murder toll dwarfs that of Al Qaeda and ISIScombined and includes some murdered U.S. citizens. This same FARC thanks Fidel Castro for their immense fame and fortune. “Thanks to Fidel Castro” boasted late FARC commander Tiro-Fijo in a 2002 interview, “we are now a powerful army, not a hit and run band.”
But let’s forward a bit even from there:Just last month Cuba (practically) got caught red-handed supplying Chinese-made arms to the Western hemisphere’s oldest biggest and most murderous terror-group, Colombia’s FARC. The terror-death toll from these Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) exceeds 200,000, and includes more U.S. citizens than have been murdered by ISIS.
So maybe it was a mere coincidence that the very week Obama planned to remove Cuba as a terror-sponsor the mainstream media blacked-out any mention of this blatant terror-sponsorship by Cuba in our own backyard.
Back in February, you see, Colombian authorities found 99 missile heads, 100 tons of gunpowder, 2.6 million detonators, and over 3,000 artillery shells hidden under rice sacks in a ship bound from Red China to Cuba that docked in the port of Cartagena, Colombia.
Most Cuba-watchers immediately guessed what was up. And just last month Colombian reporters (actually worthy of the name, unlike so many of ours) exposed the scheme. In brief:
*The arms were from a Chinese manufacturer named Norinco and the recipient was a Cuban company named Tecnoimport.
*But the ship stopped in the Colombian ports of Cartagena and Baranquilla (where the FARC is based, remember.)
* Colombia’s crackerjack newspaper El Espectator also reports that many Norinco-manufactured arms have already been captured from FARC guerrillas over the past ten years. This proliferation of Cuba-smuggled Chinese arms to the terrorist FARC got so bad that in 2007-08 the Colombian authorities even send a diplomatic protest note to the Chinese.
This awkward information at this awkward time, needless to say, might have hampered Obama’s plan to cleanse Castro from any taint of terror-sponsorship—assuming, that many people would have switched off the Kardashians to learn of it. Hence you’re only reading about it here at HNN.
Furthermore, last summer Cuba was caught trying to smuggle military contraband though the Panama Canal to North Korea, in what the UN Security Council itself denounced as the worst violation of the arms embargo against North Korea to date. The arms embargo was imposed in 2006 by the very United Nations.
Third item on the anti-embargo teleprompter: “But the embargo mainly punishes the Cuban people, and gives Castro an excuse for his economic failures and human rights violations.”
Well, why not ask the Cuban people themselves how they feel about it? Granted, polls are difficult to conduct in a Stalinist nation but every atom of observable evidence proves that the Cuban people actually want the embargo tightened.
In 2007, for instance Spanish pollsters conducted a clandestine poll in Cuba and found that less than a third of Cubans blame the U.S. “blockade” for their economic plight. In addition, Cuban dissidents almost en-masse condemn Obama’s loop-holing of the sanctions against the KGB-trained Stalinists who oppress them. “And now, the U.S. — our ally,” lamented Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas last month, “turns its back on us and prefers to sit with our killers.”
Cubans themselves have seen and felt it during the past few years: record foreign investment and record tourism to Cuba = enrichment of the Cuban regime and increased repression. The “libertarian” pipe-dream was blown to smithereens years ago. Alas, these dogmatists never bothered to poke their nose from their books on economic theory and look at the real world.
Fourth item on anti-embargo teleprompter: “But we trade with China, for crying out loud! So why not with Cuba?”
China’s (admittedly despicable regime) allows a genuine private sector, pays its bills and has lots of goods Americans want—even need. An American can do business with a Chinese businessman not directly affiliated to the Chinese government. Whereas Cuba’s constitution outlaws private property. Every business transaction and tourist expenditure in Cuba enriches the communist regime. As mentioned, the proof and verdict on this item has been in for years, for anyone who bothers to look.
Fifth item on anti-embargo teleprompter: “But why not try something new? At least President Obama is attempting a new policy.”
In fact every U.S. President—especially Republicans–since 1960 attempted an “opening” to Cuba. But most realized that no advantages whatsoever would accrue for U.S. interests or for those of the Cuban people. In fact Ronald “Evil Empire” Reagan probably went furthest in this regard, sending Alexander Haig to meet personally in Mexico City with Cuba’s “Vice President” Carlos Raphael Rodriguez to feel him out. Then he sent diplomatic troubleshooter General Vernon Walters to Havana for a meeting with the Maximum Leader himself.
Castro, as usual, turned on the charm but Walters returned telling President Reagan that it would be Castro’s way or no way.
With our current President this Castroite attitude proved no impediment whatsoever, as already plumbed by some of Castro’s terror affiliates who are already gloating, snickering and rubbing their hands. Take Hezbollah leader Ammar Moussawi for instance: “The firmness of Cuba’s positions and the steadfastness and patience of the Cuban people has pushed the hand of US administration … the achievements of Cuba, which was firm on its principles, is a lesson for all people of the world who are suffering from American hegemony.”
Now that’s comforting.
Humberto Fontova holds an M.A. in Latin American Studies from Tulane University and is the author of five books, including Fidel; Hollywood’s Favorite Tyrant, Exposing the Real Che Guevara and The Longest Romance; the U.S. Media and Fidel Castro. “The terns scoundrel and traitor should precede every mention of Humberto Fontova!” declares the Castro regime’s official newspaper Cubadebate. For more info visit www.hfontova.com.
Yesterday’s horrific murder of nine people worshipping at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church replayed a central theme in American history. It is the question, fought for centuries with both words and weapons: to whom does this country belong?
The alleged gunman, twenty-one year old white man Dylann Roof, killed six women and three men, including pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina state senator. A witness to the shooting reported that the killer said: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
That a white terrorist murdered an African American politician and African American bystanders in a black church, using language straight out of Reconstruction, is not an accident. It reflects the vital intersection of American politics, race, and religion since 1866.
In the wake of the Civil War, white southern Democrats initially refused to face the reality that they would have to share any sort of economic, political, or social power with their former slaves. With the encouragement of President Andrew Johnson, who had taken over from the slain President Lincoln during Congress’s long summer recess, white legislatures in the South ratified the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, but then promptly set about recreating the conditions of servitude. In most states, black people could not congregate, had to sign year long work contracts, and could be arrested on charges of “vagrancy,” fined, and then bound to whoever paid their fine. Nowhere could a black person testify in court against a white person, so nowhere could a black American claim the protection of the law against theft, rape, or murder.
When Congress reconvened in December 1865, congressmen refused to return their black wartime allies to quasi-slavery under the very men who had spent four years trying to destroy the Union. They put forward the Fourteenth Amendment to give black men a civic identity that would give them legal rights as a condition for the readmission of the southern states to the Union. When southern whites retorted that they would rather remain under military rule than submit to black equality, northern congressmen passed the Military Reconstruction Act of 1867, which called for new southern state constitutional conventions to rewrite state constitutions providing for black civic rights before the states could be readmitted to the Union. Crucially, the Military Reconstruction Act permitted African American men to vote.
White southern Democrats recoiled at the idea of sharing political rights with black men. But African Americans and white southern Republicans, who had supported the Union during the war, recognized the power of their position. Republicans across the South began to organize black voters. One of their most common venues for political organization was among the very powerful black churches, especially the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and many of the early leading black politicians were clergymen.
At first, white Democrats stood against the political awakening of southern African Americans by simply refusing to enroll voters. This prompted Congress to put the military in charge of voter registration. When both white and black Republicans registered to vote and elected moderate constitutional conventions, white Democrats organized a new force to stop their political opponents from taking over their states: the Ku Klux Klan. Before the 1868 elections, members of the Ku Klux Klan murdered at least a thousand African Americans and their white allies. In South Carolina, they killed African American clergyman and state legislator B. F. Randolph at a train depot in broad daylight.
Congress stood against Klan terrorism with an 1871 law making their political intimidation a federal offense, a distinction that enabled President Grant to stop the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan by imposing martial law in parts of the South and by having federal courts, rather than local courts, try offenders. For the next twenty years, white southerners controlled black political voices by finding ways either to work with black voters or to silence them. This was imperative, they insisted, for black voters were only interested in social welfare legislation that would cost tax dollars and thus “corrupt” the American government.
In 1889, the threat of a new Republican administration to mount a federal defense of black voting brought a new construction to the idea of the corruption of government. A new generation of white Democrats worried far less about political than about social issues. They insisted that black men must not vote because if they voted, they would take local political offices. This would give them patronage power, for in the nineteenth century, local positions depended on the goodwill of local politicians. Black men would, for example, become school principals. There, they would use their power to hire teachers to force young innocent white girls to have sex with them in exchange for jobs. This political exchange very quickly turned to the idea that black political power meant widespread rape. By the early twentieth century, lynching black men was almost a civic duty for white citizens: only by purging the government of black voices could the nation be made safe.
When Roof said: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,” he was echoing the fear of black political power laid down in the aftermath of the Civil War, when white American men had to face the reality that this nation is, in fact, made up of far more women and people of color than it is of white men. That fact inspired terror – and terrorism – among white men in the late nineteenth century. It did so again after 1954, when Brown v. Board warned white Americans that they would again have to share their country with African Americans. Then, as in the late nineteenth century, white Americans turned to terrorism against black political voices as, for example, when four Ku Klux Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and murdered four little girls.
Yesterday, it seems, our history echoed again.