Friday, June 19, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Charleston and the past

A boyish white supremacist’s slaughter of nine black worshipers at a Charleston, S. C., church reminds us again that, much as we might wish it were not so, the past in this country is still not past. It will never be past until we have fully embraced it.

For the altar of the mass murder that he obviously considered to be an heroic act of patriotism, young Dylann Roof chose the African American church that symbolized the plight of American slaves and the United States’ indelible past as the largest slaveholding nation on earth, which for its first three-score years counted a black person as only three-fifths of a human being even as it proclaimed itself the world’s beacon of liberty.

The Charleston church, the second oldest black church in the South, was burned in 1822 after one of the church members tried to organize a slave rebellion. He and accomplices were executed and blacks were forbidden thereafter to have churches.

Yesterday, as Roof was arraigned in court for the murders of nine worshipers, mostly women, one of them 87 years old, the nation sort of celebrated the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth 1865, when a Union general alighted at Galveston, Texas, and told slaveholders that it was at last down to them and that, yes, even Texans had to free their slaves.

Roof did not try to hide his motives before or after the murders—he hated black people and hoped to ignite a race war that would put blacks back in their proper place in a segregated society. His few friends didn’t take him seriously until it was too late. A Facebook photo showed him wearing the flag patches of the old apartheid regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia. His own South had had to abandon apartheid, at least legally, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954 and the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s. In every community of the South and much of the North we are still struggling with the legacies of slavery and segregation, although most folks in the South concur with a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court that inequality and injustice are things of the past.

Dylann Roof expected to be admired as a hero and a martyr even as he is prosecuted for murder, and perhaps in some quarters he will be, quietly. Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, thought he was the vanguard of the American right, which was rising up against a tyrannical liberal government.

Like McVeigh, Roof is demented, but it is not hard to see how the misimpressions developed as he and his pals haunted the bars and strip joints around Charleston. To soak up the message that America is headed to ruin and that great acts are needed to save it, he did not have to link up with the online hate groups or social media that proclaim the tyranny of the black president or the growing power of blacks and immigrants. You hear it at nearby lunch tables or the workplace and you see it in unsolicited emails. And, if you are in our beloved South, you see it symbolized in the civil venues.

Let it be said that, unlike the church bombings and racial killings during the not-so-distant civil rights era, the South Carolina officials reacted not with mild disapproval but with genuine outrage and, unlike the Fox network, they called it what it was, a racially motivated mass murder that had to be punished to the fullest extent of the law. (Fox suggested that Roof was carrying out the left’s agenda of stifling religious liberty; an NRA leader said the minister, a state senator, was killed because he had voted against a concealed carry bill in the legislature.)


The Confederate battle flag still flew over the Capitol at Charleston, the cradle of the Confederacy. The state still officially proclaims that South Carolina must maintain its reverence for the cause of the Confederacy and the soldiers who fought for that cause. Although Dylann Roof killed for that cause, too, the governor and other officials say the issue of the flag is just too complicated to deal with. Some day, maybe.

Here in Arkansas two months ago, the Republican legislature beat down a bipartisan effort, led by a conservative Republican (now turned independent), to abandon Gen. Robert E. Lee’s birthday as an official holiday shared with Dr. Martin Luther King. Lee is a symbol of our great lost causes—secession and the preservation of slavery. It was explained on the legislative floor and in the editorial pages of the statewide newspaper that Lee was a brilliant and humane general and just a good man, qualities that should be celebrated through an official holiday. It occurred to us that if revered generalship needs enshrining, a more deserving honoree might be Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in the last great war led a nobler cause than slavery—the defeat of tyranny—and was a good enough general to actually win his war and then lead his country nobly in peace.

We have not reconciled with our past and Dylann Roof, sadly, will not be the last to remind us.

For hope, turn to the relatives of the slain black worshipers, who showed up yesterday morning at his arraignment not to shout imprecations at the killer but, one after another, to express their grief but also their forgiveness and to ask God’s mercy for the killer. They swapped hate for love.

“I’m a work in progress and I acknowledge that I’m very angry,” said Bethane Middleton-Brown, whose sister, a Methodist minister, Roof shot point blank with the revolver his parents gave him the money to buy for his birthday. “She taught me we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate. We have to forgive.”
 — Ernie Dumas