The facts of the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina are unfolding. But the deeper causes are like the rotted roots of an abscessed and infected tooth.
In the moments after hearing the news, my thoughts went to another racist attack in a church that left four little girls dead and nearly two dozen injured.
It’s been 52 years since the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. But we again have innocent people dead at the altar of injustice.
The morning after the shooting, President Obama recalled the Birmingham bombing, and quoted Dr. King’s eulogy for three of the children,
“He said they lived meaningful lives, and they died nobly. “They say to each of us,” Dr. King said, “black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely with [about] who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly for the realization of the American Dream.””
King hoped that “this tragic event may cause the white South to come to terms with its conscience.”
And yet it didn’t.
In the years that followed, black people were clubbed, gassed, and attacked by police and subjected to even worse abuses by the public. Racists were hardened, not softened, in the aftermath of the church bombing.
A harbinger of hope, King urged the thousands attending the service not to “lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.”
And here we are, today. Teenage girls in swimsuits are assaulted by police and the white response is that blacks should be more submissive to their abusers.
Here we are: where we exist in our own bubbles of beliefs reinforced by cable channels, talk radio, and websites, no matter how racist or offensive.
In the aftermath of the shooting, South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford posted on Facebook, “. . . I don’t understand and can’t comprehend this sort of malice.”
Here we are: where candid discussions about race are nearly impossible, because white leaders can’t comprehend racism.
In a Supreme Court decision handed down the day after the shooting, the majority ruled that the state of Texas could reject a specialty license plate request from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, because, “specialty license plates issued pursuant to Texas’s statutory scheme convey government speech. . . . Indeed, a person who displays a message on a Texas license plate likely intends to convey to the public that the State has endorsed that message.”
South Carolina has the Confederate Flag nearly on the steps of the state house; a monument to a racist society that viewed black people as less than human, endorsed by the government, and codified by the citizenry.
This is about racism.
Speaking after the shooting, President Obama said, “The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history.”
That dark part of our history, is here, now, today, where the President of the United States and his family are the target of racist comments in the mainstream culture.
What happened in Charleston is racist terrorism. As loud as a bomb and as bright as a burning cross.
To fail to acknowledge racism is to abet it.
And yet again, our society — with a rotten core built with the labor of slaves — will be unable to see the cause of the killing. A gun facilitated the murders, but a racist emboldened by a racist society, pulled the trigger.
God is on the side of the marginalized, the victims. The oppressed. And this was oppression.
Writing about slavery, Thomas Jefferson told a friend, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever . . .“
God is just, but it’s up to us, here, now, to be the instruments of God’s justice. To demand justice and to oppose racism in every form. To pray for the dead and the hurt, and to demand justice, and equality and opportunity for all the oppressed.