Why the AME Church Massacre is an Assault on the Fabric of Black Life

The massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was more than an assault on one black Bible study group. It was an attack on a basic foundation of black history and culture.

The massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was more than an assault on one black Bible study group. It was an attack on a basic foundation of black history and culture.

The AME denomination is of critical significance in the history of black Americans. Indeed, as religious institutions go, they don’t get more significant. Attacks on it are effectively attacks on the very fabric of black American life.

The United States has been here before. We have been in that place where black churches were burned or bombed. Where four little black girls died and their mourning parents contemplated incalculable losses amid cries for  “forgiveness.”

Indeed, this massacre in the Emanuel AME Church, the oldest AME in the South, will likely take its place in history alongside the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a brutal attack on the civil-rights movement. Many African-Americans also find it difficult to disconnect this assault from recent instances of white police officers killing unarmed black men or the stunning racial disparityin the U.S. judicial system, in which one in three black men can expect to go to prison over his lifetime.

This violence all emanates from the same stew of racial hatred that is churning the cauldron of right-wing media outlets and extremist Internet sites.

The attack on a Bible study group, however, appears to be about far more than simply killing black people. For many African-Americans, the attack against a storied AME church is an attempt to virtually erase black history and culture.

African-Americans’ growing fear has been, in part, stirred by a belief that far-right conservatives are engaged in dog-whistle politics. Consider, even as minority voters helped build the national majority that elected and then re-elected President Barack Obama, Tea Party rallies were marked by signs demanding “Take Back Our Country.” Republican attempts to overturn the Voting Rights Act and institute voter IDs are viewed as efforts to restrict black voters. The Confederate flag flying on the South Carolina statehouse grounds cannot even be lowered to half-staff except by a supermajority of the state legislature — even as South Carolina grieves for the nine people killed in Charleston.

One AME survivor has reportedly said that the gunman told the black parishioners, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.”

The captured cell phone images of white police officers killing unarmed black men also provoke fears among African-Americans. How do you explain, many ask after seeing the videos, when pressure is applied to the throat of a man repeatedly pleading, “I can’t breathe,” or when a boy with a toy gun is dead just 12 seconds after an police officer alights from his patrol car, or when eight shots are fired at the back of fleeing man in North Charleston, South Carolina?

Yet the Charleston massacre seems particularly brazen. The Bible study group was doing what black Americans have been doing in church for hundreds of years. They were partaking in the rites and rituals that have sustained African-Americans in a world that often seemed filled with hate, in a space that has been one of the principle means of black freedom and one of the surest ways of understanding black life. The killer sat quietly for almost an hour, according to one survivor, perhaps even listening for a while, and then began arguing with the group before opening fire.

Emanuel AME, rich in history in its own right, also belongs to the far larger history of AME churches in the United States. Much of that history has to do with the fight for freedom, resistance to racial tyranny and the struggle for social justice.

Richard Allen established the AME Church as an autonomous denomination in 1816, having first organized a “Free African Society” during the revolutionary era to help meet the material needs of Philadelphia’s slave and free-black population. Allen, born a slave in 1760, purchased his freedom in 1783. He modeled his pursuit of personal liberty on the American colonists who sought independence from Britain. He used his faith in the service of black people, whom he called “a people long forgotten.”

The result was a religious institution that served as a beacon of freedom when most black bodies were still in chains. It now has an international reach and a membership of nearly 8 million people. The sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois recognized the magnitude of Allen’s accomplishments, citing his church as “one of the greatest organizations in the world.” Allen is still known as “freedom’s prophet.”

The AME church developed out of one dramatic incident. In 1792 Allen and a small band of blacks walked out of St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in defiance when the congregation sought to enforce racial segregation in its new building. In the 18th century, racially separate churches were uncommon, but racial segregation within congregations was becoming the order of the day. The black parishioners had been dragged from the church while they knelt before the altar, which had been re-designated for the exclusive use by the white members of the congregation. So Allen and his co-religionists bolted and organized Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the “Mother Church” of all AME churches.

Since its founding, Bethel AME has set the terms for black churches’ priorities — theologically, socially and politically. It originated the “activist” black church that works for social justice, racial equality and civil rights. Celebrated black leaders have been nurtured in its tradition, including Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, social reformer Reverdy C. Ransom, theologian James H. Cone and Vashti Murphy McKenzie, the first female AME bishop.

Emanuel AME church stands as a powerful example of this tradition. Its entire history can be viewed as a struggle for justice. It, too, was born from defiance, when the black members of Charleston’s Methodist Episcopal church walked out in 1816 over a burial ground dispute.

Under the initial leadership of Morris Brown, the congregation, though facing near-impossible odds, served the black community of Charleston valiantly. The church’s defining moment came early in its history. In 1822, one of its co-founders, Denmark Vesey, a free-black abolitionist, was discovered to be plotting a slave revolt. Vesey had planned to kill all white slave owners, free the slaves and sail off with them to the black republic of Haiti. The scheme was thwarted and Vesey and 34 of the slave rebels were hanged. White authorities burned Emanuel to the ground and outlawed all black churches in the state, forcing the congregation to meet in secret until after the Civil War ended in 1865.

The massacre at Emanuel AME occurred a day after the 193rd anniversary of the Vesey slave rebellion.

Emanuel AME Church will survive and remain faithful to its storied tradition of fighting for social justice and freedom. Yet black fears about safety continue to increase. This is based on far more than a belief that far-right white anxiety is alive in America, and it is armed.

African-Americans confront militarized police forces — equipped with surplus Defense Department weapons usually associated with occupying forces — that regularly deem black and brown bodies to be a threat. Federal, state and local authorities support a legal system that uses racial profiling, leading to a large disparity between people of color and whites in terms of arrests and death sentences.

The one sure way forward now is the realization that it is racism not “blackness” that needs to be eradicated in the United States. We can only hope that the killing of the nine black church members of Emanuel AME will galvanize the country against racial extremists just as the murder of four little black girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church did in 1963.

Only then can the nation be true to its highest ideals.

More by this author

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Who Would Jesus Stone?
The Fear of Black Bodies in Motion
In the Footsteps of James Baldwin and Michael Brown

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