Historian: Church attack makes for a somber Juneteenth

Today is Juneteenth, an important African-American celebration that marks the occasion 150 years ago today when word reached Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War was over and slaves were free.

But this year’s observances will be weighted with grief and outrage after a young white man shot and killed nine black people taking part in a Bible study session at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. The incident is being investigated as a hate crime; police arrested 21-year-old Dylann Roof, who reportedly said he wanted to start a race war.

Amrita Myers

Amrita Myers

“To me this is heartbreaking,” said Indiana University historian Amrita Chakrabarti Myers. “These are people in prayer, reading scripture and welcoming a stranger into their midst. And then he stands up and murders them.”

Myers lived for a year in South Carolina while conducting research for her first book, “Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in Antebellum Charleston,” which analyzed the way black women in Charleston sought freedom in the years before the Civil War.

Emanuel AME Church, where the killings took place Wednesday night, has been central to the religious and civic life of black Charlestonians for all of its 200-year history, Myers said. One of its early leaders was Denmark Vesey, a free black man who made elaborate plans for a slave uprising in 1822. The plans were foiled, Vesey and others were hanged, and the church was destroyed.

Its pastor, Morris Brown, escaped to Philadelphia, where he helped establish the mother church of the African Methodist Episcopal congregation. Emanuel’s remaining members, barred from worshipping on their own for 40 years, effectively went underground.

“There was no independent black church in Charleston again until after the Civil War,” Myers said. Emanuel was rebuilt in 1872.

Given that history and the importance of Emanuel AME in the 20th-century civil rights movement, it is unlikely Roof picked his target at random, Myers said. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinkney, who was killed, was a state senator and a prominent political figure.

“It’s also important to understand (Roof) didn’t destroy this church,” she said. “This young man devastated a community, but this is not a community that’s going to disappear.”

Coming at a time of mass protests of police killings of black men and boys, the church killings “upped the horror quotient,” she said, suggesting people of color aren’t safe from being targeted for their race even when they gather to worship.

“Every story that comes out seems to be worse and worse, but this, I think, takes it to a new level,” Myers said. “Churches are supposed to be sacred space. They are supposed to be places where people should be able to gather and be treated with respect.”

Across the country, she said, people will still gather for Juneteenth, remembering the struggle that brought an end to slavery and subsequent battles to overcome injustice.

“But we’re going to be gathering to celebrate with broken hearts,” she said, “because freedom apparently hasn’t yet arrived. The Civil War ended 150 years ago, but the battle for human freedom and dignity will continue.”

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