On June 17, Dylann Storm Roof walked into Charleston, S.C.’s Mother Emanuel AME Church. He sat there for an hour – quietly, by all accounts – and pulled out a handgun and opened fire. State Sen. Clementa Pinckney (D-Beaufort), Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Daniel Simmons, DePayne Middleton-Doctor and Susie Jackson are dead.
They are dead because Dylann Roof hated black people.
We know this because he said so, repeatedly. “I have to do this,” he said before he murdered them. “You rape our women and you're taking over the country.” He said this before he murdered six women, and three men, who posed no threat to anyone.
His roommate, Dalton Tyler, says Roof planned the massacre for months. “He was big into segregation and other stuff. He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself,” Tyler told ABC News.
His high school classmate, John Mullins, told the Daily Beast that Roof liked to make racist jokes. “I never heard him say anything, but just he had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say. Strong conservative beliefs. He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that. You don’t really think of it like that,” Mullins said.
Dylann Roof, in his Facebook photo, wore a jacket emblazoned with the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. Rhodesia is the name white European colonists gave to the country that is now Zimbabwe. The Rhodesian government treated the African majority so brutally it was eventually overthrown in a bloody civil war.
Roof, it seems, is nostalgic for those days, when white men ruled black men. That is because he is a racist. That is why he murdered nine members of Mother Emanuel AME Church at a Bible study. He did it, I should add, one day after the anniversary of a planned slave revolt organized by Denmark Vesey, an Emanuel church leader. Vesey was executed before the revolt could actually occur.
I begin this post with such an obvious fact – that nine black people are dead because of one racist white man – because some members of the Religious Right have already begun to deny this had anything to with race at all.
E.W. Jackson, famous mainly for failing to become Virginia’s lieutenant governor, told Fox & Friends the shooting is evidence of “a rising hostility against Christians across this country because of our biblical views.”
Steve Doocy, who hosts the show, agreed. “Extraordinarily, [law enforcement] called it a hate crime. Some look at it because it was a white guy apparently at a black church. But you just made a great point a moment ago about hostility towards Christians. And it was a church. So maybe that’s what they’re talking about. They haven’t explained it to us,” Doocy said.
Rick Santorum, who is running for president, called the massacre an “assault on religious liberty.” “You talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before. It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation,” he said. He added that he “doesn’t really know the rationale.”
Santorum’s fellow GOP presidential candidate, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) told the View, “It’s 2015. There are people out there looking for Christians to kill them.”
You get the idea.
Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Daniel Simmons, DePayne Middleton-Doctor and Susie Jackson aren’t dead because they were Christians. They’re dead because they were black.
This is a fact. It is as immutable as the bricks of Mother Emanuel itself.
But there’s a miniscule grain of truth to these “religious liberty” arguments. The Charleston massacre is partly a religious liberty issue, inasmuch that racist violence undermines all civil rights. We call the First Amendment our First Freedom because it is the foundation for those rights.
Religious liberty – the right to worship freely, and safely – is evidence of a thriving democracy. Roof threatened that because he first threatened the equal rights of black Americans. It’s not the other way around.
And it is the height of political cynicism to regard Roof, with his apartheid flags and his racist jokes and his talk of race war, and claim that really he just hated Christians. This tragedy should have nothing to do with the Religious Right. It should be a non-partisan, non-sectarian moment of grief. But they’ve oriented it about themselves, stepping over the bodies of Roof’s victims to advance an agenda that is completely detached from reality.
We need to tell the truth about why Roof did what he did. We owe his victims that much. And so does the Religious Right.