Charleston is Not About Gun Violence. Its About Racial Terrorism



To understand what happened in Charleston it becomes necessary to confront the horrific and enduring history of racial terrorism in this country, terrorism that continues to this day as part of a dangerous global movement uniting white supremacists across the US, Europe and Australia. 

The title of this piece is play on a Washington Post article by Jennifer Carlson that was published following the mass killing of nine African Americans in the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, the alleged shooter holding white supremacist beliefs.  Her point is that Charleston is not a story about guns, but rather a story about racial terrorism.  Excerpting, “..”racial terrorism…can only begin to be addressed if we are willing to first forefront a conversation about the valuation of human life in the United States…the gun debate too often hijacks conversations, serving as a stand-in for the discussions we desperately need to be having…”.

What happened in Charleston is an entirely separate matter from what happened in Newtown, CT, or Aurora, CO, or in many other sites of mass shootings.  What happened in Charleston was an act born of hatred – it was not an indiscriminate mass killing of youngsters, movie goers, or mall shoppers, but rather a targeted attack against a population that is no stranger to terrorism.  To understand Charleston, it is necessary to wade into uncomfortable waters and confront the dark and horrific history of racial terrorism in our country.  And, as discussed in a recent NY Times Op-Ed by Morris Dees and Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Charleston church massacre should not viewed as an isolated, racist hate crime, but rather part of a dangerous global movement that is uniting white supremacists across the US, Europe and Australia.

My wife and I travelled to Montgomery and Selma, AL this April to visit historic civil rights sites.  For those who have seen the movie, Selma (or are aware of the history) you know about the events that unfolded on the Edmund Pettus Bridge (named after a former Confederate brigadier general, Democratic U.S. Senator from Alabama, and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan) during the Selma to Montgomery marches for voting rights in 1965. We walked that bridge from the city of Selma to the other side.  Upon reaching the crest and looking down at the road below, the fear and terror that those marchers felt as they faced the white law enforcement and deputized white males on what has been called ‘Bloody Sunday’ was tangible.  The marchers were attacked by riders on horseback and with instruments such as batons wrapped in barbed wire.  The beatings were vicious with 17 marchers being hospitalized, 50 treated for lesser injuries, while others lost their lives in both pre- and post-march incidents.  When a court held that the black protestors had the right to peaceably march, Governor George Wallace refused to protect them.   Protection along the 50 mile and five day march from Selma to Montgomery was provided through federal intervention that included several thousand troops and law enforcement agents.  But the violence that was witnessed on Bloody Sunday, hate filled violence where human beings were mercilessly bludgeoned, acts of hatred that stirred the national conscience as they were fed into millions of households over television, was but child’s play compared to the thousands of acts of unspeakable racial terrorism that occurred largely through the American South well into the 20th century.

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), founded by attorney Bryan Stevenson, recently released a report on the history of black lynchings in the United States: Lynching in America.  Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror.  The report was the result of five years of research and uncovered nearly 4000 victims of “racial terror lynching” in 12 Southern sates between 1877 and 1950 (to put the hatred witnessed on Bloody Sunday into perspective, the documentation in the EJI report ended in close proximity to that event).  The graphic depiction below showing the location of these lynchings is excerpted from a NY Times article.

These lynchings were provoked by such things as a black man bumping into a white girl while running to catch a train, knocking on the front door of a home rather than going to the back door, failing to address a policeman as ‘mister’, or offering a white woman a cool drink.  And there are others, not uncommonly involving accusations of sexual advances or attacks on white women where lynchings were carried out without trial.  Many lynchings were mob events involving hundreds and even thousands of onlookers, some taking place in a carnival atmosphere where vendors sold food and where memorabilia, such as post cards, were made of the event.  The following image is a real photo post card of a lynch mob and the smoldering remains of an African-American (ref picture 20):

The terror inflicted on African-Americans involved many horrific acts of violence.  Sam Hose, who was lynched in Georgia by a mob of 2000, provides one such example.  He was accused of a crime but never given a trial.  He was strapped naked to a tree, doused in kerosene, had his ears, fingers and genitals cut off, had the skin peeled from his face and then burned at the stake while still alive – and parts of his body were removed as souvenirs.  The following photograph is of the charred corpse of Jesse Washington, an 18 year-old African American, who was lynched in Waco, TX, before a mob of thousands.

Excerpting from the EJI report “Lynchings in the American South were not isolated hate crimes committed by rogue vigilantes.  Lynching was targeted racial violence at the core of a systematic campaign of terror perpetrated in furtherance of an unjust social order.  Selective public memory compounds the harm of officials’ complicity in lynching and maintains the otherness of black people who have lived in these communities for generations”.  Fearful for their lives, these acts of terror fueled the mass migration of millions of African-Americans from the South into urban ghettos in the North and West during the first part of the 20th century, profoundly impacting race relations and shaping the geographic, political and economic conditions of American blacks that remain evident today.

Now, further place Charleston into the context of eugenics in 20th century America where tens of thousands of individuals faced compulsory sterilization between 1907 and 1963.   Since women bore children they were held to be the greater risk for the reproduction of the less “desirable” members of society.  Women were therefore disproportionately targeted in efforts to regulate the birth rate to “protect” white racial health and weed out the “defectives” in society.

Now place Charleston into the current context of hundreds white supremacist hate groups around the country who hold the African-American population to be an inferior form of humanity (interactive Southern Poverty Law Center Hate Map provided here).  This includes propagandist websites such as the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white nationalist organization that “opposes all efforts to mix the races of mankind” and referred to black people as “a retrograde species of humanity” – the very organization the Charleston shooter attributes to the awakening of his racist beliefs.

And, citing but a handful of examples, the terrorism born of hatred continues to this day as evidenced by the Charleston church massacre.  And the 2012 Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin by Wade Michael Page who had ties to white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups and founded and played in racist white-power bands.  And, as with the lynchings, the terror is not always about guns as evidenced by the attempted bombing of the annual Martin Luther King Day parade in Spokane, WA (2011) by a man having ties to a neo-Nazi group.

In the week following the shooting, major gun violence prevention groups have weighed in on the Charleston massacre, one asking that the public demand Congress to vote now on expanding background checks on gun sales under #IamCharleston, a claim that should be made cautiously unless one has lived the hell of that population, and an interesting request as the Charleston shooter, Dylann Roof, had legally purchased the gun used in the attack  (the drug charge he faced was a misdemeanor and he thus passed background check).  Background checks provide both an incomplete and inadequate solution in preventing atrocities like Charleston for the simple reason that they do not screen out those holding hateful beliefs.  Many developing lone wolf terrorists will remain under the radar with this check unless they have a pre-existing record.  As with Dylann Roof, Wade Michael Page also legally purchased the gun he used in the Sikh Temple shooting.  And, as pointed out by a “race treaty” (ICERD) committee member last summer in Geneva, Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, both unarmed black teenagers, lost their lives simply because of the color of their skin – both shooters, George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn, respectively, were in legal possession of their firearms.

So, to the point of Ms. Carlson’s Washington Post article, the Charleston dialog must not be hijacked by the issue of gun control.  The underlying cause of the violence in Charleston is quite different from that in Newtown, Aurora, etc.  The conversation about Charleston should be about a valuation of life in this country and why some lives are valued more than others.

A Way Forward

What is needed by the gun violence prevention movement is an approach that umbrellas all victims of gun violence, regardless of the underlying cause of the violence.  And that exists but has been slow on the uptake by the movement.  What the slain children of Sandy Hook Elementary and their families, and the slain worshippers in Charleston and their families share in common is that they have, irregardless of the cause of the violence, both suffered the same violation of rights – the very fundamental right of life was taken from them.  And this is not just etherial – it has practical political application in shaping a Congress that would better address discrimination, gun violence and other ills afflicting our country.

Regarding the Sandy Hook event, know that the United States will soon be the only United Nations member state that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an instrument fostering, on an international level, the development and protection of children – a situation that then presidential candidate Obama cited as “embarrassing” and promised to review the matter.  American opposition to the Convention stems primarily from political and religious conservatives – and yet it was the conservative wing of our politics, the Republican Party, that obstructed every attempt in 2013 to further the protection of our children following the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary massacre.  What occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary would be a clear violation of rights under the convention and Congress would be compelled to act.

And for the first time, the high number of gun violence deaths in the US (particularly the disproportionate effects in African-Americans) was cited as a rights violation under the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), a contribution of this writer who had the benefit of the Violence Policy Center‘s considerable and invaluable research and the weight of Amnesty International – USA, both of which joined the report.  Importantly, gun violence was one of innumerable breaches of rights borne of racial/ethnic discrimination in our country, many of which contribute to premature death.  And although this Convention has been ratified by the US Senate, and our country is thus bound by it, our government has refused to implement it – a point of contention between the committee and the large and relatively senior US delegation in attendance in Geneva last August that included, amongst others, now US Attorney General Loretta Lynch.  And is it just coincidence that the conservative wing of our politics has exploited, for decades, racial conflict for political gain?

If our president is serious about addressing race issues and gun violence in our country, it is time that he and his allies begin to pressure Congress as to why it would not be willing to join an international effort to protect the rights of children.  Or why it is not implementing a Convention we have ratified which is intended to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms.  Turn the heat up, bring it out of the shadows, and make it quite public in a presidential election year. The voting blocks of women, African-Americans, and Hispanics have become too large to ignore as was shown in 2012. And considering the speed with which politicians, some of whom have benefited from the exploitation of racial conflict, are moving to remove the divisive Confederate Battle Flag, no time is better than now to strike so that those lives taken in Charleston, Sandy Hook Elementary and elsewhere are not lost in vain.

The way forward is, once again, a fight for rights.