Reflections on Mother Emanuel and White Complicity

Five years ago, on June 17, 2015, I had an incredible day. It was the middle of my last summer in Clemson, South Carolina and one of the last days my friend Kenny would be in town before moving to Seattle. We drove to Atlanta to go to a Braves game, stopping beforehand at a spectacular Korean bbq place that had been on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

The weather was great and the night was clear. The Braves were playing the Red Sox, and it was a tight game until the bottom of the 7th inning. The Braves put up 2 runs and didn’t look back, winning 5–2. The entire night is commemorated by photos still up on my Facebook page.

On the way back to Clemson we stopped for gas and I started scrolling through Facebook. A friend had shared a CNN article that caught my eye — shooting in Charleston, 9 dead. My immediate thoughts were essentially: what? That’s a misprint, right? If 9 people were killed it would be a bigger story, wouldn’t it? There were no details yet. Police investigating, etc. Kenny got back in the car and I shared the news with him. Neither of us are from Charleston but he’s from a town pretty near by, and I had been visiting the city a lot since my sister started school there. Plus being SC natives, we felt connected to the town.

The rest of the drive home was me flipping back and forth between Twitter and various news sites trying to learn more information. I don’t really remember how much more came to light that night. It seems like it wasn’t much, other than — maybe this happened at a church? Was it inside or outside the church? It was unclear. A robbery? Wait, was it the big church on Calhoun Street? The AME church?

By morning, the story was clear. Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist who was my age and from a town outside of Columbia called Lexington, had driven to Charleston to shoot and kill Black people in an attempt to start a race war. He did not choose this church as his target ignorantly. He knew its history and the community it served. He arrived at Mother Emanuel AME and found a small bible study in the basement — the details are fuzzy now, but I seem to remember he thought he was showing up to a much larger service. Less than a dozen parishioners were there, among them the congregation’s leader Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina State Senator.

Image for post
Image for post
The announcement board outside Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. June 2015

I will spare you the most of the horrific details of what happened. They are well documented and well known. However, I maintain that the most chilling one, the one that I will never forget, is that before committing these murders Roof sat and prayed with them for an hour. The members of Mother Emanuel welcomed him in, despite his obviously being an outsider, believing he was seeking redemption through Christ as they all were. They offered grace, and he prayed with them. And then he trapped them, pulled out his gun, and killed nine of them, leaving a survivor to tell everyone what happened.

Dylann Roof was arrested peacefully. The officer then took him to Burger King.

Last Friday, the Clemson University Board of Trustees voted to remove the name of John C. Calhoun from the school’s Honors College. The school itself is named after Thomas Green Clemson, Calhoun’s son-in-law and one time eager Confederate soldier, and it is built on Calhoun’s old plantation. Calhoun was a slave owner, the seventh Vice President of the United States, and a notable political theorist whose primary contribution was the claim that slavery was a “moral good” rather than a “necessary evil”. He espoused that Black people were actually better off in bondage than free, a viewpoint even some of the most ardent supporters of slavery didn’t utter in public.

This decision is widely credited as a response to two prominent NFL players and Clemson graduates who, during nationwide protests calling for reform after the murder of George Floyd, publicly called for the change— Deshaun Watson, who I was in a class with in 2015 just a few months before the shooting at Mother Emanuel, and DeAndre Hopkins, who is known for saying “Daniel High” instead of “Clemson” during those TV broadcasts where starting players introduce themselves at the beginning of the game. Hopkins has given various reasons for doing this over the years, but most recently he said it was in part because of the name of the Honors College.

The truth is, though, there have been several movements and petitions throughout the years demanding that Clemson remove the names of slave owners and white supremacists from their institutions. While I was a student, following the murder of Mike Brown and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, Clemson had its own movement called “See the Stripes”, named for a poem written by grad student A.D. Carson. This movement tried to force Clemson University to reckon with its white supremacist roots and embrace justice for its Black community members, of whom there were and still are far too few. In April of 2016, several members of this movement orchestrated a nine day “sit-in” at Sikes Hall, the primary administrative building, demanding the university change the name of Tillman Hall, which outsiders will recognize as the giant clocktower on campus. In addition to being the biggest advocate for the establishment of Clemson University, Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman was, unequivocally and by every account, a vicious white supremacist. This was a well documented fact when the building’s name was changed to Tillman Hall from “Old Main” in the 1960s, nearly half a century after Tillman’s death.

This is where I will mention that, in addition to changing the name of the Honors College, the Board of Trustees requested permission from the South Carolina state legislature to change the name of Tillman Hall back to Old Main.

This move by the Board of Trustees is laudable, but it is worth questioning why it took so long to make this change. Calhoun’s horrors are well documented and well known. Certainly that was true in 1981, when the name was added to the Honors College. Nothing Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, or the countless faculty, student, and alumni advocates have said or done changed the truth about Calhoun’s life in any way. The only thing that changed is the Board of Trustees was finally made to reckon with its role in the perpetuation of white supremacy.

The day after the shooting at Mother Emanuel, as I stayed glued to the news coverage, one thing persisted in the back of my brain — that damn statue.

If you have not been to Charleston, you might not know about it. One block west of Mother Emanuel AME, one of the most historic Black churches in America, lies Marion Square. Many news cameras were set up here, in the far southeastern corner of the park, with Mother Emanuel in the background and a Courtyard Marriott across the street. If those cameras were ever turned around you would see it — a towering pillar overlooking several city blocks, atop it John C. Calhoun enshrined in bronze.

Image for post
Image for post
Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC.

Marion Square is a favorite convergence spot for residents of Charleston. Sitting on the corner of King and Calhoun, it hosts several major events each year, including the Spoleto Arts Festival, and when the weather is nice it is filled with College of Charleston students studying, sunbathing, or otherwise hanging out with their friends and classmates. Overlooking all of this is John C. Calhoun, a man who lived several hundred miles from Charleston but who for many South Carolinians represents a time when the state was at its high point in political influence. Indeed, prior to the Civil War, South Carolina was the richest state in the union; afterwards, it was the poorest.

I had always found the statue distasteful. I was a student of history and political theory, and I had no illusions about John C. Calhoun’s legacy. For the first time, however, I was thinking about what it must have been like for decades to attend the oldest AME church in the South, on Calhoun Street, literally in Calhoun’s shadow. On the most prominent corner of the most historic and popular city in South Carolina, still to this day, a monument to the state’s most famed white supremacist towers over everything else. It is quite the symbol. And it is quite the insult to Charleston’s Black citizens, especially the parishioners of Mother Emanuel, and especially after a man acting in Calhoun’s image murdered nine of their own.

Dylann Roof is the modern day son of John C. Calhoun. Not literally, of course, but spiritually — their views are well aligned. Honoring John C. Calhoun invariably means honoring the legacy of torture and murder rooted in white supremacy. That is the legacy Roof sought to carry on in 2015, and the legacy many still defend today as part of their heritage, outraged at any suggestion that it might be time to let it die. To defend John C. Calhoun is to defend Dylann Roof.

In 1962, to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War, the South Carolina state legislature voted to adorn the state capitol building with the battle flag of the Confederacy. In this resolution, they failed to provide a timeline for the flag’s removal. For 38 years, that flag flew atop the capitol building as a demonstration of how the state of South Carolina wanted to be recognized. Controversies came about — in 2000, with the Republican primary bringing attention to the state, it was moved off the top of the building to prominent placement on a monument on capitol grounds. In 2001, the NCAA banned all pre-scheduled postseason events (bowl games, tournaments, etc.) in protest of the flag. Still, it flew.

Shortly after his arrest, it was confirmed that Roof owned and operated a website called “The Last Rhodesian”. On this site, Roof wrote screeds about his white supremacist beliefs. He posted photos of himself with the flag of Rhodesia — a rogue, unrecognized 20th century white supremacist nation that sought to keep its majority Black population subjugated through violence — and the flag of the Confederacy — a rogue, unrecognized 19th century white supremacist nation that sought to keep its majority Black population subjugated through violence.

As the website’s name indicates, Dylann Roof saw himself as the inheritor of white nationalist states before him. Roof’s photos show he understood the power that symbols have to communicate one’s beliefs. Roof is not the only person who understands this concept, though. The South Carolina legislature understood it very well when they placed the Confederate flag on state grounds in 1962, and generations of South Carolinians since then have understood it as they defended the flag’s placement there and in front yards and windows across the state.

Once Roof’s affinity for the Confederate flag came to light, along with his deranged manifestos where he professed his beliefs and desires to start a race war in detail, the controversy around the flag at the State House was renewed. This time, the flag was finally removed from the Capitol grounds.

The move by Governor Nikki Haley was laudable, but it is worth questioning why it took so long to make this change. The horrors of the Confederacy are well documented and well known. Certainly that was true even in 1962, when the flag was originally placed. Roof’s actions did not change a single thing about the shameful history of the Confederacy. The only thing that changed was it became politically untenable for South Carolina’s leaders to continue to publicly embrace that history. It certainly didn’t hurt that Haley had ambitions for a higher office.

Haley ordered the flag’s removal on July 10, 2015. I was still living in Clemson at the time. My first day as an intern at Marin Theatre Company, a playhouse in the San Francisco Bay Area, was exactly one month away. The flag coming down was an unequivocally positive development, but it had a side effect that essentially reversed its impact — the flag’s defenders across the state began displaying it everywhere they could. I had never in my life seen the flag in so many places as I did in the days following it’s removal from the capitol grounds — in business windows, outside of people’s homes, on their t-shirts, and even an absolutely monstrously sized one flying on a truckbed going up and down College Avenue. The message was clear. Like Dylann Roof, these people understood the power of a symbol.

In the time between the shooting at Mother Emanuel and the removal of the flag, Kenny moved to Seattle to start his new job. President Obama had delivered his eulogy at Reverend Pinckney’s funeral, famously breaking out into song with “Amazing Grace”. And my mom had a stroke.

It was the Sunday morning after Rev. Pinckney’s funeral, the first Sunday that Mother Emanuel was open again after the shooting. Kenny was back home for a few days before making his move and I had made plans to drive down to Charleston and hang out with him one last time. We were going to visit Mother Emanuel and pay our respects. In fact I did make it to Charleston that day — but only after spending hours at Conway Hospital with my mom, who was then transferred to the Medical University of South Carolina’s Charleston campus, and a doctor that doubted her symptoms and believed she was faking pain to obtain painkillers until the X-ray came back and proved otherwise. My mom and I are White, but it is not lost on me that this is an experience many Black people regularly have with medical professionals, leading to a disproportionate amount of preventable deaths due to undiagnosed illnesses. I feel I can say with some certainty that this doctor was probably even harder on his Black patients than he was on my mom. I started plotting in my head how I would have that doctor’s license revoked so he could never treat another patient like that. I never took any action.

Image for post
Image for post
Plaque installed at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston following the murders of nine parishioners.

My mom would be at MUSC for ten days, and my sister and I spent those ten days with a close family friend. The full story of that period is for another essay. What I want to note here is, after nearly two weeks of being consumed by the story of these nine Black churchgoers gunned down in the shadow of John C. Calhoun, I found myself at the scene. I walked the short distance between the church and Marion Square. The Calhoun statue had been prominently tagged in red graffiti with the word “RACIST”. By the time I was there, the graffiti had been covered up and new protective fencing had been installed to keep people away from the statue. The image of the defaced and newly secure statue was a stunning display of how South Carolina was more interested in protecting their monuments to white supremacy than their Black sons and daughters. A powerful symbol in its own right.

The sidewalk in front of the church and the fence leading to the end of the block and toward Marion Square were of course filled with tributes to the “Emanuel Nine,” as they became known. Scores of people stood outside as I did, mostly in reverent silence. The only permanent installation was a small purple plaque installed on the wall of the church. In the center of a heart, it read “We are U9ted in Faith & Love”, and the names of the nine victims surrounded the heart. As another older plaque points out, Mother Emanuel AME Church is the oldest AME church in the South and has the largest congregation south of Baltimore. It is a congregation driven by faith and love that endured slavery, Jim Crow, and centuries of systemic white supremacy. Standing at that building it was obvious that they had the power to endure a pissant coward like Dylann Roof. But in the same way Roof’s actions could be endured, they also had to be seen as part of the fabric of the community rather than an anomaly. Charleston is known as “the Holy City,” with the most centers of worship per capita of any city in America. Since the crime occurred at a church, it was easy for White people to identify with the victims and see themselves as part of the community that this act had happened to. Standing outside the facade of Mother Emanuel, next to Marion Square and on Calhoun Street, faced with the centuries of oppression endured, it was obvious that the opposite was true — White people were not the victims, but the perpetrators, complicit in building a society that rewards whiteness and punishes deviation from whiteness and creating John C. Calhoun, Ben Tillman, and Dylann Roof.

Dylann Roof is the modern day son of the Confederacy. Not spiritually, of course, but literally — a born and bred South Carolinian, he sought to raise it from the dead. Honoring the Confederacy invariably means honoring the legacy of torture and murder rooted in white supremacy. That is the legacy Roof sought to carry on in 2015, and the legacy many still defend today as part of their heritage, outraged at any suggestion that it might be time to let it die. To defend the Confederacy is to defend Dylann Roof.

In this moment we find ourselves in another moment of uprising and reckoning. It seems that White Americans — myself included — are finally beginning to realize their complicity in perpetuating white supremacy through endless generations. In many places monuments to the most heinous perpetuators are being removed and destroyed so they can no longer stand as symbols of racism, although the Calhoun statue in Marion Square still stands. While this realization is laudable, it is worth questioning why it has taken so long. This complicity is well documented and well known. Certainly it was before June 17, 2015.

Take a moment today to say the names of the Emanuel Nine. If you are White, consider how you are complicit in their murders. Now consider what action you are prepared to take to protect Black lives in the future. Whatever has been done so far, it hasn’t been enough. Not nearly enough.

Clementa C. Pinckney (41) — the church’s pastor and a South Carolina state senator.

Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd (54) — a Bible study member and manager for the Charleston County Public Library system

Susie Jackson (87) — a Bible study and church choir member. She was the oldest victim of the shooting.

Ethel Lee Lance (70) — the church’s sexton.

Depayne Middleton-Doctor (49) — a pastor who was also employed as a school administrator and admissions coordinator at Southern Wesleyan University.

Tywanza Sanders (26) — a Bible study member; grandnephew of victim Susie Jackson. He was the youngest victim.

Daniel L. Simmons (74) — a pastor who also served at Greater Zion AME Church in Awendaw.

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (45) — a pastor; also a speech therapist and track coach at Goose Creek High School; mother of MLB prospect Chris Singleton.

Myra Thompson (59) — a Bible study teacher.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store