“I have to do it. You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go,” declared the young white gunman as he emptied clip after clip of a .45 caliber handgun into the small group of African-American churchgoers at a Wednesday evening Bible study.
After sitting amid the congregation for nearly an hour, he stood up and started firing the handgun he’d recently received as a birthday present. He kept firing, reloading his gun five times in a rampage that left eight people dead on the floor of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Another, the ninth, died on the way to the hospital. The church had been founded by worshipers fleeing racism; white slaveholders had previously burned it to the ground for its connection with a thwarted slave revolt; and in the civil rights era it became a symbol and headquarters of the movement. Now it was once again in the crosshairs.
The church sits less than a dozen miles from the park where Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was gunned down by a white police officer. The calls of “Black Lives Matter” were still ringing throughout Charleston, when gunshots again cut down black lives.
The victims of this brutal and cowardly attack inside the sanctuary of a house of worship included a South Carolina state senator, a librarian, and a recent college graduate.
The alleged killer, later identified as Dylann Storm Roof of nearby Lexington, fled the scene in his black four-door sedan adorned with an ornamental license plate that read “Confederate States of America” with the image of the Confederate flag. After a 15-hour manhunt, Roof was arrested without incident nearly 250 miles away, during a traffic stop in Shelby, North Carolina.
Though new details continue to be unearthed, a portrait of 21-year-old Roof as a withdrawn, troubled man with an interest in white supremacy is starting to emerge.
The Daily Beast quoted a classmate from White Knoll High School about his reputation for spouting racism. “Just he had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say. Strong conservative beliefs,” said John Mullins. “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.”
“Southern pride” still runs deep in parts of South Carolina. The wounds of slavery and the Civil War are still unhealed, in many ways. Despite many protests, the Confederate flag continues to fly over the state capitol building. In January 2000, at the dawn of the new millennium, 6,000 Confederate flag supporters marched through Columbia, the state capital, according to Leonard Zeskind’s Blood and Politics.
This spring, just 90 miles from the shooting, a statewide Tea Party convention invited a white nationalist leader to speak. The organizers canceled his appearance after the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights exposed his ideology. At that same convention, however, Tea Party officials and potential presidential candidates shared the stage with a Tea Partier who promotes a book that refers to blacks as “pickaninnies,” claims that slaves were treated humanely, and insists that slavery was just as inhumane for the slavemasters.
Beyond the racist jokes and Confederate flags on his car, Roof displayed more of the warning signs of involvement with white nationalism on his Facebook page. His profile photo shows him in the winter woods staring into the camera, clad in a black jacket with two flags affixed above over his chest: an apartheid-era South African flag, and a flag used to represent the unrecognized state of Rhodesia, after the former British colony of South Rhodesia fractured and a white minority attempted to take control of the country. Both patches are worn by white nationalists in the United States to express support for white minority rule.
Roof’s recent arrests also indicate that he may have had additional targets in mind for his killing spree. Last February he attracted attention at the Columbiana Centre, a shopping mall, when he asked store employees “out-of-the-ordinary questions” such as how many people were working and what time they would be leaving, according to a police report. A police officer questioning Roof at the scene discovered that he was illegally in possession of a controlled substance; he was arrested and charged with felony drug possession. In April, Roof was charged with trespassing on the roof of the same mall.
In a sad commentary about the dominance of local gun culture, the same morning that The Charleston Post and Courier ran a front-page story about the shooting with the headline “Church attack kills 9,” some readers found the headline obscured by a sticker advertising “Ladies’ Night” at the ATP Gun Shop & Range in Summerville, South Carolina.
Devin Burghart is vice president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights.