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Charleston is a reminder of America’s racist history, as well as its history of fighting back

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by Kate Aronoff

“Hate crime,” as Charleston, South Carolina Police Chief Greg Mullin sheepishly called the Wednesday night massacre of nine black parishioners at the city’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, is the wrong word. Here are some more wrong words likely to be heard on CNN and other major news networks over the next several days: mental illness, troubled, disturbed, loner.

The answer to why these words are so inaccurate is another word: history. Because, by its nature, history is always messy, pluralistic and incomplete, there are a few different histories, all of them overlapping and intertwined, that are important to name when talking about what happened in Charleston this week.

As many have noted, Emanuel — the South’s oldest African Methodist Episcopal, or AME, church outside of Baltimore — has a storied history, both locally and nationally. Founded, in part, by a former slave named Denmark Vesey in 1816, the church has long been a symbol of black independence and resilience. By 1818, some 75 percent of Charleston’s black parishioners had left white churches for the AME, seeking refuge and community apart from slave masters and other toxic bits of white antebellum society.

June 16, 1822 — 193 years and one day before Wednesday night’s shooting — marked the anniversary of a failed slave uprising Vesey helped to plan, a plot for which he and 34 other black men were executed. Though it was burned to the ground around the time of his execution, and black church services without a white person present were banned, the church would outlive Vesey; its members continued to gather in secret before a new edifice was constructed in 1865 and again in 1886. Before, during and after this reconstruction, Emanuel AME — long a center for activism, from slavery through the civil rights era to the present — has been subject to frequent attacks from white mobs fearful of the possibility of an independent gathering of slaves and, eventually, free persons beyond their control.

Historian Peniel Joseph, Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin, as well as writers at The Atlantic, Slate, Washington Post and elsewhere, have all expertly documented parts of this history and more. Additional background on Emanuel and other parts of the black faith tradition can be found on the website for the PBS documentary “This Far by Faith.” As Joseph wrote, “The nation is, it seems, caught in a perpetual feedback loop — destined to repeat the tragic, unheeded lessons of a racial past that we refuse to acknowledge exists in our present.”

Another, related history to that of the church is the one undergirding gunman Dylann Roof: the history of violent, and deep-seated racism Roof was all too happy to espouse at the time of the shooting. “I have to do it,” he said. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” A number of recent pictures of Roof surfaced hours after he was named as a suspect. In one, the 21-year old dons a patch from Rhodesia, the British colonial name of Zimbabwe — as Vox explains, “a cause célèbre for white supremacists in the 1960s and 1970s.” If there was any doubt about Roof’s intentions, he made clear to point out to a survivor of the attack that, “I’m here to kill black people.”

Complimenting this history is that of white erasure: rendering black lives invisible and expendable, while white lives — even those of the clearly culpable — are treated as objects of fascination, pity and sympathy. This is why news of the massacre of nine black lives took a full three hours to surface on cable news, and even then did not merit the round-the-clock, full-throated coverage that accompanied mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Sandy Hook, Connecticut, where the victims — of course — were not uniformly black. It’s why the media focuses on mental illness instead of race, when nine black lives are shot down by an avowed white supremacist.

It’s not just a history, but an ideology that condones, even promotes, South Carolina flying the same flag — at full mast — that hung over armies sent to die defending the Southern aristocracy’s right to enslave, torture and dehumanize an entire population based solely on the color of their skin.

Then there’s another history that’s too often forgotten: that of resistance — particularly, black resistance. This, like most deep histories — cannot be bound to any one city, institution or individual. It’s a history that’s found voice and life in Emanuel and the people, including the slain pastor, activist and State Congressmen Clementa Pinckney, who have coursed through it and given it life. It was in the vigils held Thursday in Florida, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Texas, San Francisco, New York and elsewhere, commemorating the lost — not to mention the one in Charleston that concluded with a haunting rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” It’s in those calling adamantly to, once and for all, tear down the Confederate flag responsible for so much bloodshed from the South Carolina statehouse. It’s in the Black Lives Matter leaders from around the United States who, for the first time, met in Detroit this week to discuss the future of the movement that has gripped the country these last several months, and the plans that continue to emerge under the same banner: More than a few would be surprised if this coming weekend passed quietly.

As rooted and entrenched as racism is in American history, there’s also a history of fighting back against it that’s every bit as winding.

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