Wednesday night in Charleston, South Carolina, a white man entered one of the oldest and most prominent black churches in the United States, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and shot six black women and three black men. After a complex manhunt, the alleged shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, was captured Thursday morning some 200 miles from the scene of the crime.
The ripples of this historic act of domestic terror reached nearly 2,000 miles away to Denver, where leaders in black church leaders are organizing a vigil this evening and plan to speak out against the hate crime on the radio.
“As a black man you can’t help but wonder, where are black people safe in America?” said Patrick Demmer, president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance and a prominent civil rights activist in the state.
“Where are we safe? Our children are victimized at school. Our young men are being killed by the police over and over and over again. Now we go to the house of God, a house of prayer, a place of worship, and we are attacked in the house of God because somebody wants to kill black people. Where are we safe?”
Demmer said it is no coincidence that this latest attack arrives as the Black Lives Matter movement is growing and as the discussion of latent racism in the United States bubbles to the surface of public conversation.
“I thought there was tremendous resurgence of visible racism after the election of Barack Obama, which has been most disheartening,” said Demmer. “I thought the election of an African American president would usher in a new time of understanding and equality, but there are those so opposed that we’ve seen attacks on every front.”
Indeed, this year opened with a bombing outside the NAACP in Colorado Springs, which led to an FBI investigation and to local lawmakers decrying the attack as an act of terror. The city of Charleston also made headlines this year when a white police officer was caught on tape shooting Walter Scott, a black man, in the back.
“When you can’t be safe with the police and you can’t be safe in the house of God, then you understand there is a declaration of war that’s been launched against black people,” said Demmer. “It’s all rooted in the same issue, which is racism. But the work of this is all done by the Devil himself. It’s evil. It’s wicked. It’s racism.”
Terrence Hughes, the vice president of the Greater Denver Ministerial Alliance, agreed with Demmer that the shooting was motivated by race and designed to strike terror. He pointed out that the shooter left one woman alive allegedly so that she could “tell the story” of what happened.
“The story is about him instilling fear into someone else,” said Hughes. “I refuse to be held captive by fear. My role as a pastor is to teach my people not to be ruled by fear. In fear, you take actions that are unimaginable.”
But Hughes added that the story of what happened is also larger, longer and about more than one man’s hatred.
“I don’t lay this just at this gunman’s feet,” said Hughes. “He is responsible for his actions, absolutely, but we have to look at the larger context.”
Hughes is in his 50s, and he’s seen some context. He remembers the four little girls who lost their lives in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. He also remembers Colorado Congressman Doug Lamborn calling President Obama a “tar baby” in 2011.
“That stuff takes root in the mind of someone who is disturbed,” said Hughes. “Nothing happens in a vacuum, and this world has gotten so, so small.”
Just as history shaped the shooter’s actions, so, says Hughes, will history shape the response.
Hughes noted that Denver’s own Shorter Community African Methodist Episcopal Church was burnt to the ground in 1925 in a fire believed to be started by members of the Klu Klux Klan. For a year the congregation shared worship space with People’s Presbyterian, where most of the parishioners were white. During that time, they rebuilt the AME Church on the scorched ground.
The Emanuel AME in Charleston was also once burnt down after a failed slave revolt planned by its founder. The black community rebuilt it.
“That’s the perfect analogy of what the black, African American community has always done,” said Hughes. “We’ve always built back up. We’ve never allowed this to stop us, to stop our faith. We just build back up and build our faith even more.”
When it comes to writing history, to the future, Hughes has a message of hope and of action.
“This is a time to stand up, not just black and African Americans, but all Americans,” Hughes said. “This is when we speak out together, ‘You don’t give in to this kind of mindset, to terror.’ You stand firm, you stand tall and you stand together. You pray together, you live together, you work hard together, and most of all, we love together.”
Martin Luther King Jr. at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church 53 years ago. Image in Public Domain.