This was a day for grieving and sorrow and reflection — and for counting the number of times Barack Obama has addressed the country after a mass shooting. There are so many that the Washington Post has published a timeline.
This time, though, it was not only a mass murder, but a mass murder by a young white man who killed nine parishioners in a historic black church. And, if the early stories are true, it was a young white man filled with racist hatred whose father gave him a .45-caliber gun for his 21st birthday. Try to work your way through that sentence.
Obama, clearly struck with grief, stood by Joe Biden, who pushed back tears. And Obama said that although it was clear nothing would change in Congress any time soon, that “at some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”[pullquote]The stories are not new, which makes them all the sadder. That so many parts of this story are weighted by history makes them sadder still.[/pullquote]
This time, suspect Dylann Roof — seen in a Facebook picture wearing a jacket marked by flags of apartheid-era South Africa and of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe — is said to have walked into a black church, sat among the parishioners for nearly an hour and then killed nine of them, reportedly saying, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. You have to go.”
Police and the FBI are investigating the murders as hate crimes. You don’t have to agree that crimes should be separated by their level of hate to agree that this is a particularly hateful crime, one more hate-filled mass-murder. How do we begin to understand it, any more than we understand what kind of rage made James Holmes do what what he did? In Charleston, we have to ask more: How have the many years of a society dealing with its racist history come to this? How does this level of racist hatred still exist?
At a time when a woman’s misplaced racial identity becomes a week-long story – the best kind, in which no one really gets hurt — we now are drawn back to the old definition of racial identity, the sadly reliable kind.
The two pieces are inseparable. Add another name, Emanuel AME church, to the list of tragedy — another one that doesn’t happen, as Obama put it, in “advanced countries,” where they understand the relationship of guns to gun violence. And add Emanuel A.M.E. to the long list of racist crimes.
Jelani Cobb got to the heart of the story in his New Yorker piece, that at 110 Calhoun Street, in Charleston, S.C., the site of Emanuel, we have found the crossroads where Columbine, Aurora and Newton intersect with Baltimore, Ferguson and Sanford.
No mass murders are worse than any other mass murders. We thought we had hit bottom in Newtown, when 20 first-graders and six adults were massacred. But adding the racist component to the piece makes this one different.
Emanuel has been at a crossroads since it was founded in 1816 as part of the AME movement in which black churches arose after black worshipers in majority-white churches were literally pulled from their knees to go to the back of the church. Emanuel was home to Denmark Vesey, who was caught — and hanged – in a plot to begin a slave uprising, after which the church was burned to the ground and all-black meetings in Charleston were banned. The church went underground until after the Civil War, which began at Fort Sumter, less than a mile from where the church stands today. Emanuel played a key role in the civil rights movement, and Coretta Scott King led a march from the church. Obama called it “sacred ground.” In Charleston, they call it “Mother Emanuel.”
We don’t know how much the killer knew of the history. According to some reports, he may have known of the minister, Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator. Pinckney had apparently driven that day from the capitol in Columbia, where the Confederate flag – which flew from the State House dome as late as 2000 – still flies on the grounds at the Confederate memorial. And now people are asking if that flag will be flying at half staff.
The stories are not new, which makes them all the sadder. That so many parts of this story are weighted by history makes them sadder still.
We’ll grieve and reflect. And then there will be a next time, in a different place, in a different context, with a different murderer, with another gun.
Photo credit: Jason Eppink, Creative Commons, Flickr.