I was one of several hundred in the overflow crowd which stood in front of the Morris Brown AME Church in a prayer vigil Thursday, following the slaughter of nine black Charlestonians a few blocks away at Emmanuel AME Church. It was one of the most racially mixed gatherings I have seen or been a part of in some time. Perhaps if there were more such public events — under happier circumstances, to be sure — there would be fewer such incidents as the massacre at Emmanuel Church.
That was part of the genius of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The crafters of that historic legislation sought to dismantle the structures of segregation, not just out of a sense of fairness, but with the confidence that when black people and white people actually mingled in schools, restaurants, and residential neighborhoods, they would overcome their ancient fears and hatred. That this nation has come so far in reconciling its racial differences in the past half-century is a credit to their wisdom.
Of course, from the moment segregation was outlawed, whites began contriving ways to violate the spirit and the letter of the law. One of those ways was white flight from American cities to the suburbs. In Columbia, S.C., whites poured across the Congaree River into Lexington County, settling on top of an ancient rural white stock that had been famous for their KKK activity just a few decades before. Today, Lexington County is only 15 percent black, the fourth lowest percentage in the state. On Election Day, it is one of the most Republican counties in the nation, as anyone who has observed this state's political scene can tell you. And as we now know, it was the home of Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old man accused of the killings at Emmanuel Church.
In the days and weeks ahead, we will learn much about Roof, who his friends and associates were, what he talked to them about, what he read, what internet sites he frequented. We may never understand what poisoned his young mind or triggered his murderous outburst, but a good place to start looking would be the overwhelmingly white, conservative, historically racist culture of Lexington County.
Yet we should remember that Charleston has blood on its own hands from centuries of racial strife. In an earlier age, there were numerous mass executions of rebellious slaves, including the more than 30 hanged publicly following the failed Denmark Vesey conspiracy of 1822. The days of public mass executions of African Americans is long past, but what we saw at Emmanuel Church Wednesday was a private mass execution, committed by a troubled white man who probably knows nothing of Charleston's bloody racial history.
One of the most troubling aspects of this terrible day is the fact that Roof chose to come to our city to vent his rage. Of course, for anyone with a deep racial grudge and the desire to make a statement, Emmanuel AME Church would be a natural target. Probably no place in South Carolina is more connected to emancipation and civil rights than the historic white Gothic Revival sanctuary on Calhoun Street.
Denmark Vesey himself was a founding member of the church and is said to have done much of his recruiting from its membership. After the failed uprising, white Charlestonians burned the original building, driving the congregation underground until after the Civil War. The current building was erected in the 1890s, and over the years Booker T. Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King spoke there.
In the coming months there will be much soul-searching in this town, much looking back and looking forward, as we strive to learn the lessons from this tragedy. For one thing, bullets are not all that threatens African Americans in Charleston. They are being pushed off the peninsula by gentrification and soaring real estate prices. And of course, there is the intractable problem of violence in the black community. African American bullets kill far more African Americans than rogue cops and sick bastards from Lexington County combined.
These are real threats to the black presence in Charleston, and this would be a good time to start talking about them. I don't claim to know what the solutions are, but I know this old town has a lot of heart. There are people of good will here who want to make things right, who want to heal old wounds and move forward. I saw many of them at the prayer vigil last Thursday at Morris Brown Church. Perhaps we will look back some day at the Emmanuel Church Massacre as the moment we decided to come together and make this town work for everyone.
Will Moredock is the author of Living in Fear: Race, Politics & The Republican Party in South Carolina.