Though Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church will be likely summed up in the news over the next couple of weeks as a “black church,” perhaps a “historic black church” if people are feeling generous, the church’s two-plus centuries as a site of unwavering community resistance to state-sponsored racism give it a legacy whose magnitude that we—if we are outsiders—can barely understand.
Jamelle Bouie writes at Slate about the origin of Emanuel A.M.E., known to its congregants as Mother Emanuel:
Emanuel AME isn’t just a church; it’s the oldest black congregation in the South (outside of Baltimore) and a historic symbol of black resistance to slavery and racism. Its founder, Morris Brown, was one of the first ordained pastors of the AME denomination, founded in 1816 in Philadelphia. Upon his return to Charleston, he started a branch that quickly changed the social and religious landscape of the city. Within two years, more than three-quarters of black Methodists in the city—more than 4,000 people—had left their segregated denominations to join the AME church.
With a quickly growing population, the church became a site for anti-slavery community organization in the early 19th century. An early member named Denmark Vesey, a free black carpenter, helped foment a slave rebellion—whose plans were rooted out, Vesey executed, his sons deported. From the Washington Post:
He fiercely and insistently preached that African Americans were the new Israelites, that their enslavement would be punished with death, and in 1822 he and other leaders began plotting a rebellion.
The revolt was planned for June 16 — 193 years and one day before the shooting Wednesday night. But another member of the church, a slave named George Wilson, told his master about the plot. Nearly three dozen organizers — including Vesey — were put on trial and executed, while another 60 were banished from the city. Believing that “black religion” had caused the uprising, South Carolina instituted a series of draconian measures against African American churches and communities, including a ban on services conducted without a white person present. The Charleston A.M.E. congregation was dispersed and their building set ablaze.
There’s more about Vesey’s attempted rebellion in this C-SPAN video from 2011.
After the church building was burned down, church members reorganized in secret. They started meeting at a building near Fort Sumter—the site of the beginning of the Civil War, the place where South Carolina earned the embarrassing honor of being the first state to fly the Confederate flag on rebel-captured territory—in a church that one of Vesey’s sons had designed. There, they took the name Emanuel. The building was destroyed in an 1886 earthquake, and replaced with the building that stands today.
In the 20th century, Booker T. Washington, Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King, Jr. were present at Mother Emanuel, attending services and leading marches:
This powerful thread of black community leadership was visible in the legacy of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, killed along with his sister in the mass shooting at his church.
Pinckney was a married man with two children who had served in the State Senate since 2000 and had been preaching since the age of 13. Recently, he supported a bill that would require police officers to wear body cameras, and he consoled the family of Walter Scott after that unarmed man’s death by white police.
Though this incident of homegrown terrorism will likely be treated by soft cable news as an anomalous act of violence, it’s squarely within the long history of white supremacist attacks on black communities—legitimized first by slavery, then by Jim Crow, then by a century that ended in the false flag of “postracialism” and the tacit ahistorical denial exhibited by much of the country’s population despite the fact that the Confederate flag is still flying over the state house of South Carolina.
Jamelle Bouie writes about the thick, bloody history of white attacks on black churches specifically:
The most famous attack—or act of terrorism—was the 1963 church bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where the Ku Klux Klan killed four girls preparing for Sunday services. Such attacks were common throughout the civil rights period, and they re-emerged in the mid-1990s, when arsonists attacked black churches in South Carolina and other states.
The Atlantic goes into more detail, in a piece called “Thugs and Terrorists Have Attacked Black Churches for Generations.”
Congressional hearings were held in 1996 at the end of a two-year period whensuch arson spiked across the southeast. In 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.
One wonders how many black congregants are remembering bygone fires today.
South Carolina has 19 active hate groups operating in the state, including the KKK. It is additionally one of only five states without an internal hate crimes law. A New York Times op-ed published on Tuesday stated, “The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists”—and backed that statement up with statistics self-reported by police themselves.
Last night, a mourner in Charleston told MSNBC: “If we’re not safe in the church, God, you tell us where we are safe.”
If you’re interested, you can donate to Emanuel here.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.