Charleston is known as the holy city, for its many steeples and spires that tower above the landscape. On Wednesday night, a most unholy act happened in one of the city’s congregations. Suspect Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, is believed to have entered the doors of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. According to authorities, he sat among church members for nearly an hour before he started shooting. A state senator and the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was murdered along with six women and two men in his congregation. “I do believe this was a hate crime,” the police chief said. Black men and women were targeted while they held Bible study. An act of terror happened in a sacred space.
There are still so many questions. In the hours and days and weeks to come, details and analysis will surface: who are the victims and what are their stories; how do we combat racism and violence; where did the shooter get a gun; did he suffer from mental illness; how much was he known to authorities. But some things we may never know, or understand. This is not the first attack on an American house of worship. But in a year of cries for justice over police brutality and lost black lives, this mass shooting again brings us to the dreadful realization that injustice continues and tragedies mount.
I was born and raised in South Carolina. Last fall, I got married in a church three blocks west and a half-mile south of Emanuel A.M.E. I am a descendant of the region’s white Methodists, the same people who so ostracized their black congregants that the Rev. Morris Brown left in 1818 and formed a church for black members, who would later comprise Emanuel. And, if early reports are true, the alleged shooter attended high school in the same town where I did. I am angry. I mourn. I want to atone. My destiny is tied up with their destiny, both the oppressed and the oppressor.
It is impossible to see the attack on Emanuel apart from the church’s history. Emanuel has been a symbol of resistance since its inception, when Brown gathered more than 1,000 black Charlestonians into the African Methodist Episcopal Church. One of the group’s founding members was Denmark Vesey, who had bought his freedom and began organizing a slave uprising. When the plot was discovered in 1822, Vesey and 34 others were hanged. In retaliation, his church was burned to the ground. But it rebuilt, again and again. In 1834, when all-black churches were outlawed, it resurrected itself with underground meetings. In 1865, it was again publicly recognized, taking on the name Emanuel (“God with us”). The church hosted Booker T. Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. And in recent months, the slain Rev. Pinckney fought tirelessly for legislation for police to wear body cameras, which passed in the wake of the shooting death of Walter Scott in North Charleston.
“This church is more than just a local congregation. It is a jewel that represents the rich heritage of worldwide African-Methodism and its commitment to preach the liberating Gospel of Christ,” wrote my friend, the Rev. Marcus McCullough, in an email exchange. (McCullough is a lifelong member of the A.M.E. and an ordained A.M.E. minister, but he did not speak to me as a representative of his denomination.) He continued, “This isn’t just about a church or even a denomination, rather it’s about a people and the relentless desire to extinguish its past, present, and future. It is then, perhaps, no coincidence at all that this occurred amidst the clarion call that #BlackLivesMatter. And that, for sure, is what makes this hurt so bad.”
History pervades Charleston, but publicly it often offers a selective memory. The city and the state have been slow to reckon with their legacies. Just off the coast, the first shots of the Civil War rang out. By some estimates, nearly half of all Africans who were brought to America during the slave trade entered through the ports of Charleston and its surrounding areas. The legacy of racism, of Jim Crow, and of slavery’s brutality mark each cobblestone step and grand home that still stand.
And yet, visitors are too often given a sanitized image of the Old South—genteel accents, hoop skirts, and sweetgrass baskets. The Confederate flag still flies on the state house grounds in Columbia, and it lines the walls and hallways of many of Charleston’s historic buildings. Charleston is a city full of museums, but it was just in 2007 that the city officially opened a museum dedicated to understanding the slave trade. In 2014, after a nearly 18-year effort, a monument to Denmark Vesey was unveiled in one of the city’s parks.
Michael Altman, an assistant professor of religion at the University of Alabama and a high school classmate of mine, went to college in Charleston. When I reached out to him over email, he wrote, “The Civil War isn’t distant there. Slavery isn’t distant there. It’s not uncommon to happen upon a guy dressed up like a Confederate soldier. The Confederacy is banal in its ubiquity in town.” He continued, “So, when this happens, when a white man walks into a historic black church—a church literally driven underground by Southern white supremacy—it feels like all of those ghosts, all of that cultural memory bubbling just below the surface has violently erupted. All of those moments where you noticed the Confederacy was still around that seemed ‘historic’ or ‘cultural’ suddenly seem insidious.”
Emanuel, like many black churches, has countered these insidious narratives. The church offered a defiant history and a subversive spirit in the face of opposition, before emancipation and during Jim Crow, through the civil rights movement and to this moment. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Barbara Savage has argued, “African American religion and political struggle [have] seemed poignantly and inextricably intertwined.”
In the churchyard where I got married, there is a marker to honor the memory of the enslaved workers who built the church. Covering the bricks is a sculpture of a bird looking over its back. It is a sankofa, a Ghanaian symbol that means “looking back in order to look forward.” It is a reminder to learn from the past.
There is no sense to be made from senseless violence, no meaning that I can make. But we can remember. In this time of uncertainty, I am certain that Emanuel A.M.E. will continue its legacy of defiance, of resistance, of hope. Now it is needed as much as ever.
Tiffany Stanley is managing editor of Religion & Politics.