Black Churches Have Been Under Attack For Decades, & The Charleston Shooting Is A Reminder Of What Still Must Change
As the nation mourns the loss of the nine individuals slain during the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina, there's one heartbreaking detail to remember— black churches have been under attack for decades. Although Wednesday's attack has reinvigorated the gun control debates across America, there's an even more troubling story lying beneath the surface. Since the Civil War, there has always been a steady stream of racially motivated attacks lobbied against black churches in the U.S.
These attacks span across denomination. Baptist, Episcopal, Pentecostal, or otherwise, the intent is not to attack the place of worship, but to invade and destroy the very heart of black culture. In many African-American communities, the local church acts as the cultural epicenter of its congregation's lives. Demeaning and desecrating a church strikes at the center of a community and is orchestrated to spread fear. Wednesday's attack by white shooter Dylann Roof is only the most recent and bloodiest incident in the long history of this special brand of hate crime.
Unlike Wednesday's assault, many times the church itself is the target, instead of its congregation. Most of these attacks come in the form of arson, firebombing, and vandalism. It's a practice that finds its origins in the early days after the Civil War. Recently freed slaves would seek solace in places of worship and build their lives around this community. In turn, these churches became targets for white supremacists. Burning a church down was a tactic used to force the congregation out of the community, and across the South, churches burned at an alarming rate.
During the Civil Rights Era, many black churches became rallying points for activism and protest. Religion and church communities were a pillar of support for the African-American community, and the churches' religious teachings gave birth to the passive activism of the Civil Rights Era. Countless numbers of black leaders had ties to religion— the most well known example, of course, being Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
An unfortunate side effect, however, was that racial aggression and hostility were then turned toward these churches, who were easy prey to vandalism and arson. On September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed by members of the Klu Klux Klan. Four young girls were killed in the bombing. "They died between the sacred walls of the church of God,” King said. The attack sent ripples across the Civil Rights movement.
It would be nice to say that these acts of violence are a remnant of a different time, and that Wednesday's tragedy was an anomaly, rather than a continuation of this pattern. It would be easier to dismiss these previous acts of violence as an unfortunate casualty from the Civil Rights Era. But our supposed "post-racial America" isn't as far behind us as many would like to believe.
In 1993, there was a white supremacist plot to bomb Los Angeles' first AME church and kill Rodney King, the taxi driver whose abuse at the hands of police led to widespread race riots throughout the city. Though the plan was uncovered and stopped beforehand, the intent of the assassination was to incite a race war.
In 1996, nine black churches in South Carolina alone were bombed and set on fire. These attacks were not singular, but rather part of a yearlong pattern of attacks that saw 27 black churches burnt down. The attacks were so persistent that it caused the FBI to open an investigation. The string of burnings was compared to a biblical plague. None of these churches were organizing social activism, encouraging equal rights, or planning anything more than a church supper.
In 2008, America elected its first African-American president, and many saw it as a sign of changing values and relations in the states. But on November 4, 2008, headlines were reporting the destruction of a black church in Springfield, Massachusetts. The building had been burnt down in protest of the president's inauguration. The arsonist was later found guilty of a hate crime.
It's important that we don't allow the conversation around Wednesday's mass shooting to become solely about gun rights, and miss one of the larger issues — that black communities have been suffering the desecration and destruction of the epicenter of their culture for decades.
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