June 17th marks four years since the tragic mass shooting at Emanuel African Episcopal Church that claimed the lives of nine innocent people.
On June 17th, 2015, what began as a simple Wednesday night worship ended in tragedy and near apocalypse. By far one of the most hate-filled crimes aimed at a church since the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in September 1963, the shooting occurred at 9pm that night when 21 year old Caucasian male, later identified as Dylann Roof, opened fire and then fled the scene afterwards.
As Jason Horowitz, Nick Corosaniti, and Ashley Southhall profile in their 2015 New York Times article, Charleston police chief Greg Mullen called the shooting a hate crime. “It is unfathomable that somebody in today’s society would walk into a church while they are having prayer meeting and take their lives,” he said.
Emanuel African Episcopal Church was one of the nation’s oldest black churches. Charleston itself is also historically known as one of the earliest places where slave ship settled in the early 16th Century. Many of the victims that were shot were longstanding members of the church including Bible Study members, several pastors, including the church’s senior pastor and South Carolina state senator Clementa Pickney.
In retrospect, the shooting garnered national media coverage becoming one of the darkest moments in recent history. Several members of the Black community, both in Charleston and elsewhere, voiced their condolences towards the victims’ families and rage towards the victims’ murderer.
Though it has only been four years since these events took place, hate crimes is not something brand new, if there is anything history has taught us. What shocked many citizens was not necessarily the events themselves but rather the hate-infused rhetoric Dylann Roof abided by that would have him carry out such an unthinkable order.
Soon after, an investigation of Roof’s motives ensued, igniting dialogue surrounding everything from hate crimes to gun control. The role of the church in the Black community also began to be revisited as writer Emma Green wrote in her 2015 article for The Atlantic. She writes, “to this day, churches are the center of social and political life in the American black community- and they are clear symbols of black influence and power…as blacks struggled to reconstitute their communities in the decades following the Civil War, churches became the center of African American life… largely because they didn’t have any other spaces they could fully claim as their own.”
Is the Black church still the only place Black people can claim as their own? As Green has alluded, a recurring theme throughout African American history is the role of the church and the spirituality that followed. The unthinkable notion that this could be threatened meant that everything the African American experience could be threatened.
Revisiting this tragedy also unpacks the role that race played during the unfortunate events. Roof was a Caucasian male who was a widely known supporter of White Supremacy and during both his interrogation and investigation, this hate rhetoric proved to be very much a prime component.
His blatant attack on the Black church was an attack on the Black community. He sought to disenfranchise those Black individuals and used hate filled rhetoric to do it. Thus, being an attack on race. Hard to believe this was an anomaly at the time of the shooting. No one could predict the turn of events that would produce the presidency of Donald Trump. Nothing would predict a time when hate-filled rhetoric would be used to build a platform on by one of the most powerful leaders in the world.
If there is one thing the Charleston shooting has demonstrated, it is that hate does not discriminate. It can infiltrate any safe space in its path.