The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina has one of the most prolific histories of any house-of-worship here in the United States. Founded in 1816 by African Americans, the church has long been a bastion of liberty and equality. Only six years after its inception, the church was burnt down by white supremacists after allegations that one of the church’s founders was staging a slave revolt. That didn’t stop the congregation from rebuilding the church in 1834. That same year all-black churches were banned in South Carolina, forcing members of the church to take their worship underground. Ever since then, the Emanuel AME Church has been the go-to place for abolitionists and civil rights leaders alike: people such as Booker T. Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King have all spoken to members of the church. Because its illustrious past, the church has transcended into a symbol of black freedom.
On Wednesday night, the church added another chapter to its history. 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study group in the church, allegedly asking the members to enlighten him about the Bible. Roof was welcomed with open arms by the group’s thirteen members, who accepted him as one of their own. After an hour of worship and discussing the Bible, Roof stood up, took out a a gun, and pointed it at 87-year-old Susie Jackson. When Jackson’s nephew, Tywanza Sanders, attempted to talk Roof out of shooting anyone, Roof replied that he had “to do it,” telling the congregation “you rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” Roof then opened fire, killing nine of the thirteen members, including admired reverend and state senator Clementa Pinckney. The shooter spared Sander’s mother, telling her that he needed someone to tell others what happened.
While Roof managed to flee before authorities arrived, he was apprehended in North Carolina less then twenty-four hours later when a florist who was late to work spotted Roof’s car on the highway and alerted authorities. “I got closer and saw that haircut,” the motorist said, “I was nervous. I had the worst feeling. Is that him or not him?”
Two days after the shooting, new reports are coming out about the shooters past. Two weeks prior to the massacre, Roof’s friend Joseph Meek said that Roof went on a drunken, bigoted rant about segregation and killing people, telling Meek that he had a six-month-long plan to “do something crazy”. Meek, fearing Roof would actually go out and kill people, hid his .45 Glock from him but returned it the next morning, thinking that words were nothing more than a drunken rant. When the description of shooter was released to the public, Meek immediately knew it was Roof and called the FBI to provide as much information on him as he could.
Many people, including major news media outlets, are at a loss trying to describe the events that unfolded that Wednesday night. Many have been quick to call it a “tragedy” carried out by a “mentally disturbed” young man. But this is far more than a tragedy; a car crash is a tragedy. This is an act of terrorism, the definition of which is “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims”.
Roof didn’t target this church simply because he wanted to kill black people; there were plenty of them in his hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. No, he attacked the Emanuel AME church because of its symbolic significance. He did his research and plotted his attack. He waited an hour after he was welcomed by the Bible study’s members before he opened fire; he had more than enough time to reconsider his actions, yet he didn’t. He wanted to spread fear among the African American community and, in his own words, start a race war in the United States. As if the shooter’s own words weren’t enough to show his hateful intentions, Roof’s Facebook profile picture shows him donning a jacket with patches of two countries representative of white supremacy: apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia.
Despite all this, you still have people attempting to excuse Roof’s vicious actions as nothing more than mental illness. This massacre did not occur solely because Roof had easy access to weapons, nor did it occur simply because he was mentally unstable. Racism and hatred are not a mental illnesses. This attack stemmed from decades upon decades of intolerance and hatred propagated both by the media and the general public at large. This monster acted out in nothing but cold blood and there is absolutely no justification for what he did.
However, we as a country cannot let the deaths of these nine people go in vain. We must use this as a wake-up call that racism is still alive and well in the 21st century. Once we are able to acknowledged its existence in our contemporary society, we can finally take steps to make sure this never happens again. We must take it upon ourselves to stomp out hatred and bigotry where we see it, in order to provide an equal and just society in which we can all live without fear of getting killed because of our skin color.