Point Austin: Racism and Heroism

Thoughts about Charleston and the aftermath

Point Austin

I can't claim to add unique insight to the national outpouring of rage and sorrow in the wake of the June 17 massacre at Charleston's Emanuel A.M.E. Church, but perhaps it's helpful for one local voice to be raised in memory and honor of the nine who died, their families, and their community. President Barack Obama, in his initial remarks following the murders, touched on most of the meanings reflected in this intentional assault on a historic black church, and how it fits into the long line of America's troubled racial history. The young man who attacked this church and these parishioners had read of its history, and he hoped to use that history and his murders to ignite a "civil war" – not a political war between states, but a genocidal war between the races.

In targeting this particular church, as Obama noted, he was taking his place in a long historical line.

Mother Emanuel is, in fact, more than a church. This is a place of worship that was founded by African-Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshippers worked to end slavery. When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, they conducted services in secret. When there was a nonviolent movement to bring our country closer in line with our highest ideals, some of our brightest leaders spoke and led marches from this church's steps. This is a sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America.[*See clarification below]

Before the Civil War, Charleston was a major slave port, its population was majority slave, and its white rulers lived in fear (not entirely imaginary) of a slave revolt – imposing particularly brutal rule to prevent slave collaboration and potential insurrection. This latest assassin declared to his victims his racist fears, hatreds, and intentions – leaving one alive, he said, to carry the tale. He takes his place in a long line of white racial terrorists, trying to obliterate not only a people, but his own fantastical fears.

The Power of Symbols

In that light, the feckless attempts online or elsewhere trying to reinterpret the murderer's actions as due simply to mental illness (or even drugs) seem almost comical in their denial of the obvious. To deny that his attack was indeed "terrorism" – the use of violence to political and even genocidal ends – is an evasion of the plain facts as well as the tyrannical racist tradition – slavery, Confederacy, KKK, White Citizens Council, Stormfront – that created him. That tradition is also why the Confederate battle flag has become the contested symbol: It was expressly adopted in this century by Southern racists determined to put an end to the Civil Rights Movement. The Nazi swastika is "historical" too – but it does not belong on statehouses, and neither does a permanent symbol of racial oppression.

Austin has its own symbolic controversy, in the Confederate statuary that disfigures UT-Austin's South Mall, installed explicitly to celebrate the antebellum South and the UT founders' determination – if they couldn't restore the Confederacy itself – to maintain Jim Crow and segregation. Should it all be thrown down? Not even possible, but certainly the current student effort to rid the mall of the spectre of Jefferson Davis has much to commend it.

I lean toward the educational sentiments of Prof. Edmund "Ted" Gordon ("Written in Stone," May 29), that whatever happens to the statues, even more important is "understanding what they mean and what they symbolize in the context of the construction of what we now have at the University of Texas." There is an unbroken line from veneration of the Confederacy and its founding principle – white supremacy – to the fanatical Charleston attack, and we need to know and understand those connections.

The True Heritage

There is one more aspect of the attack that bears witnessing, as the president also noted: "Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun." The long heritage of white supremacy intertwines with the mostly modern U.S. cult of the gun – in this instance, apparently, some family members considered a thoughtful way of encouraging a troubled young family member was to provide him with a handgun. He used it to target a small group of worshippers who had no reason to believe that their Bible study should be armed and defended – the solution inevitably proposed by the usual gun-promoting interests.

That hadn't been necessary since, well, the Civil Rights Movement – when racists targeted houses of worship because they were a convenient place to attack large numbers of African-Americans. And then long before that – in the 1820s – when Charleston's white rulers forbade slave gatherings of any kind, and specifically banned slave churches as potential seats of literacy, conspiracy, and insurrection. The life and martyrdom of Charleston's own Denmark Vesey – the former slave who helped found Mother Emanuel and was executed for his part in a planned slave revolt – stands as a permanent, heroic example of the human spirit of liberation. Desperate acts of murder and terror cannot obliterate that spirit.

*Clarification: Due to a formatting error, initially this paragraph was not clearly indicated as a quotation from President Obama's remarks on the Charleston massacre.

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Barack Obama, Ted Gordon, Charleston's Emanuel A.M.E. Church, Charleston, slavery, racism, Civil Rights Movement

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