By Noelle Lorraine Williams
Three years have passed since Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans while they prayed in the basement of a church.
As a nation, we still overlook the historical resonance of his actions against the radical history of the Black church. The Black church is not perceived as a place of fire and bite, self-determination, and rebellion. However, for 100 years, starting in the early 19th century, it was. From the recent televised reactions to Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon during the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, you may not have realized the church’s historical significance in the survival of African Americans. The wedding took place in a chapel, built in the 14th century, and the irrepressible and contagious chuckles by the royal family and friends were broadcast worldwide. It was almost like someone saying the words ‘breast’ or ‘penis’ in a fifth-grade classroom and the giggles started and kept percolating around the expectedly solemn room.
To them, Black religious culture was a joke and being set against the background of a British Anglican church during a royal wedding, was even funnier. However, British whites aren’t the only ones who think Black religion is funny. African American filmmakers, like Tyler Perry, often play up the comedic aspect of Black religion. They fail to bring light to its long position as an institution that helped to culturally, psychologically, and economically liberate millions of Black people. Therefore, when Dylann Roof murdered nine people, three years ago, during a Bible study session, the public was confused. Their belief was that there was nothing “political” about the Black church, so, “why would he do it?” - “Racist,” they said.
Dylann Roof is racist and also a historian Black rebellion; he knew about the radical history of the Black Church. And, just like the other people who would die (or kill) in defense of what they believe the Confederate flag represents, he too imagined a history of rebellion, but it was an African American rebellion. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah talks about him driving hundreds of miles crisscrossing the state visiting Confederate and historical slavery sites. However, his historical framework is not limited to hating Black self-determination in the United States, it also extends to hating Black self-determination in Africa. Roof’s confession letter was posted on The Last Rhodesian website and in one image he sports a Rhodesian flag patch. Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, a country in Africa once boasted a white minority rule over Black Africans and fought tooth and nail to maintain that supremacy. Dylann Roof’s love of Rhodesia is shared with infamous assassin James Earl Ray, who planned to flee to Rhodesia after the murder of another social justice activist who was a member of the clergy, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Dylann Roof hunted for a historical cause for his white disenfranchisement and found it - in the Black founders and sustainers of the Black church.
It was the history of an African American rebellion and self-determination and contemporary hatred that became a target for Roof’s retribution. Ghansah explains, in her piece, that he made lists of nearby African Methodist Churches, like Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which he would eventually decide to dishonor.
Though writers have explored the potential significance of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in eyes of someone like Roof, it deserves to be reiterated and pushed further. The church, built by African Americans even before the Civil War, served as a touchpoint for fugitive enslaves, self-emancipated and “freed” African Americans. For their exhibition of fire and determination, it was eventually set on fire due to its connection to the Black rebellion and empowerment. Therefore, in many ways, the Black church was the antithesis or adversary of white supremacy, which over the past two centuries, has sought to either remove Blacks from this country as in the Colonization movements of the 19th century and police brutality of the twentieth. While Black rebellion took place on plantations and then antebellum city streets - its most major strike was in the development of African American churches. In his 1970 book, “Black Freedom: The Nonviolent Abolitionists from 1830 through the Civil War.”, Carleton Mabee describes what we would now call civil disobedience however, in the 1830s, “Abolitionists and others often took direct action against church segregation. They did so essentially by two methods. One was the invasion method: they went into churches to break up the traditional seating pattern by sitting where they were not expected to sit - in “pray-in’s.” The other was the withdrawal method: they walked out of churches that practiced segregation --- in “pray-outs” --- and sometimes they created new churches instead.”
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1816 under the same conditions the original African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia was founded in 1794 - under a protest against segregation and non-representation in the white churches that they contributed to. These churches would then go on to having an even larger vision than just creating a Black version of a white-dominated church. In addition, they would help to foster support for enslaved and freed Blacks.
Often, we don’t take white supremacists seriously. They are often depicted as quacks or “mentally ill” rather than those working in cohort with a system and culture that repeatedly tries to tell Blacks that they do not have a home in the United States, nor a right to their own self-determination. As Americans, it is imperative that we understand the various and detailed history of African American self-determination in the face of racism and get insight into why we are where we are and to build a strategy against hate.
Image credit: Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Website
Copyright © Noelle Lorraine Williams. All rights reserved.