Lest We forget: Today marks the first anniversary of The Charleston Church Massacre, June 17, 2015…During a prayer service, nine people were killed by a gunman, including the senior pastor, state senator Clementa C. Pinckney; a tenth victim survived. The morning after the attack, police arrested a suspect, later identified as 21-year-old Dylann Roof, in Shelby, North Carolina. Roof later confessed that he committed the shooting in hopes of igniting a race war.The United States Department of Justice investigated whether the shooting was a hate crime or an act of domestic terrorism, eventually indicting Roof on 33 federal hate crime charges.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is one of the United States’ oldest black churches and has long been a site for community organization around civil rights. Roof is to be indicted on federal hate crime charges, and has been charged with nine counts of murder by the State of South Carolina. If convicted, he could face a sentence of death or thirty years to life in prison. A website apparently published by Roof included a manifesto detailing his beliefs on race, as well as several photographs showing him posing with emblems associated with white supremacy. Roof’s photos of the Confederate battle flag triggered debate on its modern display.
The 200-year-old church has played an important role in the history of South Carolina, including the slavery era, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement in the 2010s. The church was founded in 1816 and it is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South, often referred to as “Mother Emanuel”.
It is the oldest historically Black congregation south of Baltimore. When one of the church’s co-founders, Denmark Vesey, was suspected of planning a slave rebellion in Charleston in 1822, 35 people, including Vesey, were hanged and the church was burned down. Charleston citizens accepted the claim that a slave rebellion was to begin at the stroke of midnight on June 16, 1822, and to erupt the following day; the shooting in 2015 occurred on the 193rd anniversary of the thwarted uprising. The rebuilt church was formally shuttered with other all-black congregations by the city in 1834, meeting in secret until 1865 when it was formally reorganized, acquired the name Emanuel (“God with us”), and rebuilt upon a design by Denmark Vesey’s son. That structure was badly damaged in the 1886 Charleston earthquake.
The current building dates from 1891.The church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, had held rallies after the shooting of Walter Scott by a white police officer on April 4, 2015, in nearby North Charleston, and as a state senator, he pushed for legislation requiring police to wear body cameras. Several observers noted a similarity between the massacre at Emanuel AME and the 1963 bombing of a politically active African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama, where the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) killed four black girls and injured fourteen others, an attack that galvanized the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
A number of scholars, journalists, activists and politicians have emphasized the need to understand the attack in the broader context of racism in the United States, rather than seeing it as an isolated event of racially motivated violence. In 1996, Congress passed the Church Arson Prevention Act, making it a federal crime to damage religious property because of its “racial or ethnic character”, in response to a spate of 154 suspicious church burnings since 1991. More recent arson attacks against Black churches included a black church in Massachusetts that was burned down the day after President Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009.Shooting MassacreAt around 9:05 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, June 17, 2015, the Charleston Police Department began receiving calls of a shooting at Emanuel AME Church. A man described as white, with sandy-blond hair, around 21 years old and 5 feet 9 inches in height, wearing a gray sweatshirt and jeans, opened fire with a Glock 41 .45-caliber handgun on a group of people inside the church at a Bible study attended by Pinckney. The shooter then fled the scene. He had been carrying eight magazines holding hollow-point bullets. This was the largest mass shooting at an American place of worship, alongside a 1991 attack at a Buddhist temple in Waddell, Arizona.
During the hour preceding the attack, 13 people including the shooter participated in the Bible study. According to the accounts of people who talked to survivors, the shooter asked for Pinckney and sat down next to him, initially listening to others during the study. He started to disagree when they began discussing Scripture. Eventually, after waiting for the other participants to begin praying,he stood up and pulled a gun from a fanny pack, aiming it at 87-year-old Susie Jackson. Jackson’s nephew, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, tried to talk him down and asked him why he was attacking churchgoers. The shooter re