This past Wednesday, June 17, 2015 the historic Emanuel AME Church became the site of a horrific act of racist terror. A 21-year-old racist White man walked into the church’s Bible Study, joined the Black members for about an hour and then proceeded to slaughter 9 innocent people, one of whom was the church’s pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney who was also a South Carolina State Senator. Many across the nation have witnessed in shock as the events unfolded and the admitted shooter was captured. I am being deliberate not to, number one mention his name (he needs no more attention or notoriety) and, number two call him “alleged” or “suspect.” All the evidence points to him and he said he did it…I believe him! Instead I celebrate the lives of those massacred–Susie Jackson; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton; DePayne Doctor; Ethel Lance; Daniel Simmons Sr.; Clementa Pinckney; Cynthia Hurd; and, Tywanza Sanders.
But more than this specific event I am reflecting on the regular commentaries by people saying how shaken they are by the fact that the massacre took place in a church. Their comments remind me of how short our memories are when it comes to racist terror in the United States. Black churches have ALWAYS been vulnerable to violence. Churches are places where people least suspect violence. They are places where people presume peace, safety, and a sense of reverence and respect. But in the case of Black people the church has long been a place of terror. What happened last Wednesday in Charleston just reinforced that fact for me.
The primary reason the Black Church has been a target of racist violence stems from its independence and freedom as a wholly owned and operated Black space. From the congregational model of Baptist congregations to the more Episcopal organizations of hierarchy in AME and other congregations, the Black Church has belonged to Black people. That in itself has been enough to piss off plenty of White people. How dare Black people select their own leadership? How dare Black people call the shots? How dare Black people rely on their own money and ingenuity to create their own organization? How dare they use this organization as a place to promote their culture and encourage themselves and their children? Yes, the Black church has been an affront to White America for a very long time.
In 1794, Richard Allen established the first official Black Church in Philadelphia, PA. He established this church because the church he attended insisted on his maintaining a separate worship service for Black church goers and later wanted Allen to move his service to another building. Thank you White people…your insistence on race and white-skin privilege ensured the establishment of separate Black churches. Please don’t come to me today talking about integrating the church. Yes, you are free to worship in Black churches…and some of you already do, but do not expect Black people to give up that which makes our churches distinctively Black.
Historically, the Black church has been the place of much of the Black community’s civic, social, cultural, and political strategizing and engagement. But, it has also been a site of real terror. Four innocent Black girls were killed due to racist terror in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama on Sunday, April 15, 1963.
As recent as the 1990s, according to the Atlantic, “[I]n South Carolina alone, black churches that suffered probable arson attacks included Mt. Zion AME Church in Williamsburg, Macedonia Baptist Church in Manning, Saint Paul Baptist Church in Lexington, Rosemary Baptist Church in Barnwell, St. John Baptist Church in Dixiana, Effington Baptist Church, Mount Olivet Baptist Church, and Allen’s Chapel. One member of Congress likened fire-bombings in those years to “the return of a biblical plague.” The most recent burning of a Black church to make national headlines occurred in Massachusetts the day Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first Black president. A White man was later convicted in what prosecutors called a racially motivated arson attack.”
Emanuel AME Church holds a special place in Black History because it was one of the few places free Blacks could worship in Charleston, SC during our enslavement. Emanuel was the oldest Black Church in the South having been founded in 1816. It was co-founded by freedom fighter Denmark Vesey whose attempt to lead an insurrection against slaveholders resulted in the execution of Vesey and 34 others AND the burning down of the church in 1822. Subsequently, the White power structure of Charleston shuttered ALL Black congregations and banned the gathering of Black people to worship as they pleased. The Black folks of this congregation met secretly for years until the church was reopened in 1865 under the leadership of Denmark Vesey’s son. The church has been in the forefront of civil rights struggles from its inception.
To be sure there have been acts of violence in Black churches beyond the Black-White terror outlined here in this blog. Mrs. Alberta Christina King, mother of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was herself shot and killed in church on a Sunday morning in 1974 by a Black man who described himself as an enemy of Christians. There have been instances of Black people with personal grudges, crimes of passion, and other anger walking into a church and killing folks. Similarly, members of other races and ethnicities have witnessed attacks on their churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship. Some of the greatest abuses visited on children have happened in the church—by church officials!
But each time Black churches experience acts of racist violence it reminds us of our hard-fought attempts at freedom. It reminds us of our attempts to declare our humanity. It reminds us of the constant assaults on our personhood and citizenship. It reminds us that despite trying to create a sacred space we remain vulnerable to evil even in church…yes, in church!
Stay Black & Smart!