Charleston and the Ghost of the American Civil War

Basil Wilson's picture

Dylan Roof’s search for meaning led him to the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina where he ruthlessly murdered nine members of that congregation.  The churchgoers of various ages attended the Wednesday Bible study to deepen their faith from which they derived meaning.  On Wednesday night in that sanctuary June 17, 2015, two age-old southern traditions tragically came together.

Dylan Roof experienced tantalizing agony embracing the new South.  He concocted this mythical concept of southern history.  Roof argues that it is the Trayvon Martin death at the hands of George Zimmerman in 2012 that served as his racial awakening.  For Roof, Zimmerman was justified in taking Trayvon Martin’s life and he did not see the reason for the hullabaloo.  For Roof, black lives do not matter, just white lives.

This son of the South who dropped out of high school in the ninth grade sought an historical understanding of America’s racial past and the present.  That took him to the site of the Council of Conservative Citizens.  The CCC in Charleston is the strongest of the chapters.  The extant CCC is the outgrowth of the White Citizen’s Council which had sprung up all over the South to resist the desegregation of the schools.

Roof erroneously learned from the website that blacks were murdering whites every day in the streets and no one was doing anything about it.  He adopted the ideology of white supremacy and in his photographs on his website displayed the regalia of white apartheid rule in South Africa and in Rhodesia.

Organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens have never been able to come to grips with the bloody and barbaric nature of slavery.  The propaganda of the CCC on their website convinced Roof that slavery was beneficial to black folks.  The slave narratives according to Roof provided evidence that the “darkies” were happy in their state of bondage.

Roof, like the CCC, is vehemently opposed to desegregation and wishes to return to an era of Jim Crow.  Roof buys into all the stereotype of black people’s low IQ, violent prone and high testosterone.

Roof’s reality is shaped by films and the white supremacist ideology that he has discovered.  His friends indicate that he spent his time hanging out in strip clubs and drinking.  They became aware of his racial obsession in recent months.  This true believer was given a 45 Glock by his parents when he attained the age of 21, the same weapon that he used to murder the nine people of faith in the Emanuel A.M.E church.

In his manifesto, Roof laments that there is no one speaking for the white poor.  He sees whites fleeing to the suburbs as whites lacking in courage and leaving behind those who do not have the means to engage in white flight.  They are left behind to attend schools where blacks might constitute a majority.  Nonetheless, Roof refrains from making a class analysis and sticks to his race fixation.

Like most white supremacist, he sees Jews in conspiratorial terms.  He makes the case that Jews are white but it is their Jewish identity that prevents them from being accepted as part of the white supremacy clan.

He is supportive of Asians as he sees them as racist and possible allies.  Hispanics are perceived as the enemy and immigration is threatening to the white majority.  In his discussion of Hispanics and Asians, Roof exposes his superficial understanding of the modern world.

Unlike recent perpetrators of mass killings, Dylan Roof was not mentally ill but personified the atavism of white supremacy.  There is a segment of the American South, a sub-culture, that is still fighting the Civil War.  This school of thought has failed to come to grips with the dastardly nature of slavery.  It finds ways to justify the Civil War, to apologize for Jim Crow and to rationalize the thousands of black men lynched from the post-Civil War period to the 1950s.

The United States is the only country in the western hemisphere to have fought a civil war to end slavery.    Emancipation in British colonies occurred in 1833 and in French colonies in 1848.  Actual abolition of slavery in Brazil did not occur until after the American civil war but slavery in Brazil was gradually being phased out.

Southern intellectuals like John Calhoun of Charleston, South Carolina vainly tried to justify the system of slavery.  Historians like Ulrich Phillips also distorted the system of slavery and argued that Africans benefited from being treated as shackled property.  Historians like Herbert Aptheker, Herbert Gutman and John Hope Franklin have set the record straight but for white supremacists, myths of the American past are indispensable for their narrative.

The historian Eugene Genovese has argued that black religion was instrumental in preserving black humanity but it did not lead to black liberation.  Roof chose the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston because of its historical significance.  It is the church that Denmark Vesey founded in the 1820s and was destroyed when it was discovered that he was plotting a slave revolt.

The relatives of the massacre have indicated their willingness to forgive the killer.  This willingness to forgive reflects the profound humanity of the black religious tradition.  Out of this tragedy, Governor Nikki Haley with bi-partisan support has committed her administration to removing the confederate battle flag from the state capital.

The Germans after World War 11 did not seek to cling to the Nazi Swastika.  It is time for the South to come to grips with its vile past and extricate itself from symbols of a fascist past.

*Dr. Basil Wilson is Provost Emeritus of John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Executive Director of the King Research Institute, Monroe College, Bronx, New York. He can be reached at: