Three thoughts about the Charleston church massacre: The flag, the church, the way forward

Photo of Emanuel AME Church by xx, published under Creative Commons license. 

Photo of Emanuel AME Church by Howard Arnoff, published under Creative Commons license.

On the day after the shooting, the U.S. flag was lowered to half mast in Charleston. The South Carolina flag also flew at half mast. The Confederate flag did not.

The Confederate flag stands for racism. Its defenders, and they are many, claim it stands for “heritage, not hate.” That is not true. The Confederate flag began in racism, embraced as the foundation of the Confederacy in the “cornerstone” speech of Alexander Stephens in 1861:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. … With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place.”

That flag stood for racism in 1861 and it stands for racism today, regardless of what its defenders want to claim. Those who claim the flag stands for heritage are right — but it is a heritage of hatred and racism. That is the heritage embraced by the 21-year-old white man who murdered nine black men and women as they prayed in Emanuel AME Church. The killer “was big into segregation and other stuff,” according to his roommate.

This church, of all places — this Emanuel AME Church — stood for American dreams of freedom and justice. Founded in 1816, Emanuel was burned in 1822 in retaliation for the Denmark Vesey slave revolt.

The revolt was planned for June 17 1822 — the massacre took place on June 17, 2015. Denmark Vesey was a co-founder of the church and the organizer of a slave revolt that failed when it was betrayed. He was killed. The church was burned, and then all black churches were outlawed in South Carolina in 1834. When slavery ended, the church re-organized.

During the 1960s, Emanuel AME church gave a home to the civil rights movement, along with many other black churches. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. preached there. As central gathering and rallying places for the black community, the churches were targeted and attacked. Black churches were burned and bombed, including the bombing that killed four school girls in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. We still remember and honor them: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair.

Moving forward, we must honor the dead of Emanuel AME Church by taking up their work for justice and freedom.

Reverend Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine people killed in Emanuel AME Church, was both the pastor of the church and a South Carolina legislator. He spoke to his fellow legislators after the police shooting of Walter Scott a few short months ago. In his speech, he talked about the biblical story of the apostle Thomas, who doubted the resurrection of Jesus and said he would believe only when he saw Jesus and could touch his wounds. Reverend Pinckney spoke about the video evidence of Walter Scott’s shooting and how it provided an answer to today’s doubters. “What if Mr. Santiago was not there to record what happened?” he asked. “I believe that many of us would say, like Thomas, ‘I don’t believe.'”

Like Thomas, many white people doubt the deep and ugly reality of racism, and the ways it is embedded into the fabric of American life. This terrible massacre should make us fall to our knees, believing, confessing, repenting of the sins of the nation.

Reverend Pinckney said that the death of Walter Scott “created a real heartache and a yearning for justice, not just in the African American community, but for all people … not just in South Carolina but across our country.” May his death and the deaths of the other eight members of Emanuel AME Church move us forward to take up the fight against racism, the struggle for justice in our country.

Remember and honor:

Cynthia Hurd, 54

Susie Jackson, 87

Ethel Lance, 70

Rev DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49

Rev Clementa Pinckney, 41

Tywanza Sanders, 26

Rev Daniel Simmons Sr, 74

Rev Sharonda Singleton, 45

Myra Thompson, 59

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