Last week, a white supremacist gunned down nine black men and women in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
The AME Church has suffered mass murder before. In 1822, it was at the vortex of a supposed slave insurrection led by Denmark Vesey. Historians are split on whether or not Vesey really plotted rebellion. He went to the scaffold insisting that he didn’t, and I believe him.
That crisis turned American history. Slavery had been unraveling in Charleston. The acid logic of Jefferson’s credo—that all men were created equal–was slowly melting chains. The city even allowed two unsupervised, all-black AME congregations to organize in 1818. (Vesey’s congregation met in Cow’s Alley in the Hampstead neighborhood of the Eastside.) With visions of Tara in our minds, it might be hard to believe that in the early 1800s no respected public man anywhere in the United States, not even here in Charleston, would avow that slavery was good. Everyone considered it evil and expected its eventual dissolution.
But in 1822, Charleston’s mayor, James Hamilton, Jr., who hated these reforms, caught wind of a rumor. His thugs rounded up suspected blacks. Jailors tortured their prisoners. Hamilton threatened them with execution. Gradually, to save themselves, a few began to weave the tale of insurrection Hamilton wanted to hear, a massacre of white men, the mass rape of white women, the torching of the city, all supposedly led by a free man of color, a lay preacher in the AME church, Denmark Vesey. It was an incredible story: neither the governor nor a U. S. Supreme Court Justice living in Charleston believed it. But massive fear is a hard thing to resist, and Hamilton had his way. A hundred thirty-one blacks and a few whites faced his extra-legal star chamber. Hamilton hanged thirty-five them, some free, most slaves, all innocent. State-sponsored terrorism.
The supposed rebellion triggered a backlash of white supremacy unseen in Charleston since before
the Revolution. It was a rehearsal for the backlash that followed Nat Turner’s real rebellion ten years later. Quasi-legal vigilantes began terrorizing liberal whites. New penal laws were written. Morris Brown and Henry Drayton, the two AME ministers, came under suspicion and under threat, and so they closed their churches. In South Carolina, if nowhere else, radicals began openly proclaiming that slavery was good for people and that we needed to make it perpetual.
Ten years later, at the height of the Nullification Crisis, Hamilton resigned the governor’s office to take up arms against President Jackson. John C. Calhoun resigned the vice presidency for the Senate, where he began proclaiming the then-radical doctrine of perpetual slavery. He made the notion that slavery was a “positive good” respectable among southern whites. First South Carolinians, then people all over the South began repudiating the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. Lynch law suppressed dissent. White supremacists swept the South clear of progressives, like Angelina Grimké, who went into exile or hid their hearts.
A whole generation of white Southerners grew up in this police state, feeding from the cradle on Calhoun’s pap. They went to slaughter by the thousands under Confederate banners.
We have all seen Dylann Roof waving one of those banners.
White supremacists perpetrated other acts of terror at other turning points in our history. In 1876, when Democrats were “redeeming” the South by rolling back civil rights, a white militia massacred five men in the black community of Hamburg.
The most notorious among the murderers was Ben Tillman, who was later elected governor. His greatest achievement was cementing Jim Crow into law with his state constitution of 1895.
Right about this time, Charleston erected its gigantic statue of John C. Calhoun on Marion Square. Whatever ambiguity that statue has for some people today, its scowl was crystal clear to Charleston’s blacks in 1895: you’ll never vote again, because Jim Crow rules.
The message was clear in 1940, when Tillman’s statue went up at the statehouse. The message was clear when Winthrop University changed the name of its Main Building to Tillman Hall: you can forget about Brown v. Board of Ed, because no blacks are welcome at South Carolina’s all-white colleges. The message was clear when the South Carolina legislature started flying the Confederate flag at the statehouse: you can forget about those civil rights they’re talking about up in Washington, because down here whites still rule.
Somehow, since then, the message got foggy for some whites, who tried to sanitize the meaning of these symbols. Even Charleston’s Mayor Joe Riley, a hero of so many battles for equality and long-time opponent of the flag, is foggy-minded on this issue. He said on CNN that bigots “have appropriated” the Confederate flag and “used it as a symbol of hatred.”
These symbols have always meant bigotry: when soldiers fighting under Confederate flags refused quarter to surrendering black Union troops, when “Redeemers” erected Calhoun’s statue, when whites terrorized those school children in Little Rock, when they killed civil rights workers Mississippi, when James Earl Ray shot MLK in Memphis.
Many white people of good will, our own President McConnell among them, have tried to appropriate the flag to other purposes. They have tried to make it stand for positive Southern values—valor, for instance, or simple love of place. They’ve tried to wash bigotry out of Confederate memorabilia. They’ve been doing this since the late 1960s. They failed.
As the smoke of Dylann Roof’s gun dissipates, we can see clear as day the face of John C. Calhoun. He stands a block away, atop a giant column, scowling at Mother Emanuel. The church is on Calhoun Street. It used to be called Boundary Street, until that lost generation of white Southerners changed its name.
The sin of Jim Crow was committed by Democrats, and the reality of politics in the mid-twentieth century meant only the Democrats could purge it, which they attempted to do under Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson. But the sin of preserving these relics of white supremacy belongs to the Republican Party. Many times many people have tried to end this public reverence for bigotry all over the South, but Republicans always prevent it. The reality today is that only the Republicans, a nearly all-white party here in South Carolina, can do anything about this.
It’s particularly hard for white Southerners of a certain age to give up these symbols. It means admitting that our grandparents and our grandparents’ parents were white supremacists. It means admitting that those genteel Charlestonians erected Calhoun’s monument to shove down their black neighbors. No one wants to think ill of their grandmother.
But outrage forges courage.
Governor Nikki Haley, Senator Lindsay Graham, and Senator Tim Scott, all Republicans, called for removing the Confederate flag from the statehouse, and an incredible number of Republican lawmakers have indicated their willingness to comply. It was embarrassing to see other Republicans weaseling out their responsibility to take a stand, one way or the other, trying to occupy some middle ground between Emanuel and Calhoun.
It remains to be seen whether the Republicans in our statehouse will have the courage to join this better turning point in our history. That is their only choice: join it or be swept away by it, for the change is coming whether they like it or not. Standing on what is increasingly becoming an island, a Jurassic Park of politics, some South Carolina legislators still sound like they belong to the twentieth century. “If we take down the flag,” Representative Tommy Stringer said, “we have to take down every Confederate monument in every county.”
Yes, Mr. Stringer, the logic is inescapable.
Like a deer in the headlights, Ben Jones of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said, “It’s an hysteria—we just want to fly this flag for family, for grandpappy. This whole thing is basically insulting and demeaning our respect for our ancestors.”
Again, right on the money. Should we respect those particular ancestors or not?
“I am not proud of this heritage,” said Republican S. C. Senator Paul Thurmond. That’s courage. After all, Thurmond is disrespecting not only his grandpappy but his father, who said in the floor of the U. S. Senate, “There’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
We are witnessing a sea change, and Mr. Stringer (R., Monks Corner) and Mr. Lee Bright (R, Spartanburg/Greenville) and maybe a dozen others will soon find themselves standing on Dinosaur Island.
The South is beginning to let go of the Confederacy. It is unredeemable. Let us strike down all the statues.
There is no middle ground. Not after Emanuel.