Charleston’s violent white history

Charleston, where this latest shooting atrocity took place, is also a historic crime scene. For Charleston was, of course, the capital of the slave trade, with about forty per cent of the Africans brought to the country landing first on American soil on Sullivan’s Island, just outside Charleston Harbour.

That’s worth mentioning because it seems increasingly likely that the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church fits into a pattern established almost as soon as the slaves began working on the rice plantations of the lowcountry.

In The Half Has Never Been Told, Edward Baptist emphasises the importance of violence in the slave system, particularly as a method of increasing productivity. ‘Every modern method of torture was used at one time or another,’ he writes, ‘sexual humiliation, mutilation, electric shocks, solitary confinement in “stress positions”, burning, even waterboarding.’

But, of course, violence was also the method by which the slaves were disciplined. As has been widely noted, the AME Church was co-founded by Denmark Vesey, the leader of a heroic insurrection attempt in the early nineteenth century, a scheme that may have involved as many as 9000 African Americans.

News of the plan leaked – and the slaveholders embarked on an orgy of retaliatory killings. Vesey was executed, and so were thirty-four others.

Such was the traditional response to any hint at rebellion: the infliction of extreme (and usually spectacular) violence.

In Virginia in 1831, a slave called Nat (later better known as ‘Nat Turner’, after his owner) inspired his fellows to rise up in Southhampton County. The rebels eventually killed 55 whites before the governor mobilised three thousand militiamen to put down the revolt. The reprisals were swift and brutal. Nat himself hung, and his body flayed and quartered. His skull, taken as a souvenir, was rediscovered in Indiana in 2003. Hundreds of others were tortured and executed – today’s Blackhead Signpost Road marks the spot where rebels were massacred and their heads impaled on posts as a warning to others.

The pattern continued after emancipation, with reactionaries responding again and again to African American self-organisation with intimidatory violence.

The original Ku Klux Klan formed to forestall African-American involvement in public life in the wake of Reconstruction. In the words of WEB Du Bois put it, the ‘slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery’. As the Democrats consolidated power and set about rolling back African-American gains during the 1890s, a lynching took place on average every second day.

After the First World War, African-American soldiers came back from France with a determination to secure their political rights. ‘We return from fighting,’ said Du Boid. ‘We return fighting.’ They were met with brutal pogroms (including in Charleston) during the Red Summer of 1919.

A renewed round of lynchings after the Second World War represented the same phenomenon, an attempt to undercut the self-assurance of the returned men, just as a generation later, the modern KKK responded to the Civil Rights movement with bombings and shootings and hangings.

Today, the Black Lives Matter campaign is successfully focussing world attention on the extraordinary rate of police shootings in the United States – some 900 people killed a year, with the victims overwhelmingly people of colour. One of the more shocking incidents took place in South Charleston in April this year, when an officer calmly and deliberately gunned down a man called Walter Scott, a shooting captured on camera.

In the context of an increasingly visible protest movement, a massacre of African Americans in a historic African-American church serves an obvious political function. ‘You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,’ the gunman, Dylann Roof, allegedly said. ‘And you have to go.’ It’s the traditional vocabulary of disciplinary violence.

Of course, we don’t know all the details. But it’s impossible to separate such a crime at such a venue from the history that surrounds it.

Let’s not forget that, even today, Denmark Vesey remains a controversial figure in Charleston.

In 2014, civil rights activists commissioned a life-size monument to honour him and his heroic revolt. It was a hugely controversial project, with white conservatives condemning Vesey as a terrorist. ‘Does anyone believe,’ wrote Charleston City Paper columnist Jack Hunter, ‘Bin Laden should not answer for his crimes or that Vesey should not have been hung for his planned terrorist deeds?’

The statue now stands … but only in a park some distance from the main tourist areas. By way of contrast, Charleston’s central Marion Square is still dominated by monument to John C Calhoun, one of the main ideologues of slavery. ‘The relation now existing in the slaveholding States,’ Calhoun famously declared, ‘… is, instead of an evil, a good – a positive good.’

Indeed, the public iconography of South Carolina (as in much of the south) openly celebrates certain acts of violence. It was in Charleston, of course, where secessionist artillery opened fire on Fort Sumter, the incident that signalled the beginning of the Civil War. The symbolism of the ‘Lost Cause’ dominates the state, legitimating and celebrating the south’s willingness to defend the enslavement of African Americans. Most notoriously, as Ta-Nehisi Coates notes, ‘the Confederate battle flag – the flag of Dylann Roof – still flies on the Capitol grounds in Columbia’.

In fact, the State House is adorned with monuments to racists, including a huge statue of Pitchfork Ben Tillman, a man personally involved in racial murders to suppress African-American political aspirations during the Hamburg Massacre. During his long career as a racist demagogue, Tilman consistently justified lynchings. ‘We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting]…’ he said. ‘We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.’ And yet he’s still honoured outside the legislative building of South Carolina.

Someone who uses violence to spread fear and intimidation is called a terrorist. That’s what Dylann Roof did; that’s what he is. But it’s important to see that his terrorism stands in a long lineage, a tradition going all the way back to slavery.



Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

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  1. It’s horrific but underscores only in part the complex social, economic and historical links between slavery and the development of a modern America. Interestingly, as its not evident in the piece with the exception “As the Democrats consolidated power and set about rolling back African-American gains during the 1890s, a lynching took place on average every second day.” It was the Republican Party that was the first champion of anti-slavery and it was the Democrats that were most scared of emancipation. Emancipation would diminish the only real difference between poor white and poor black, that being slavery.

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