Has any murdering terrorist ever failed more dramatically than Dylann Storm Roof? Like any punk with a gun could, he managed to slaughter nine blameless African-American Christians at a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina. But his intention was to start a race war — and he succeeded only in shocking the moral conscience of the state and nation.
Racist atrocities like Roof’s have left indelible stains on this country since its founding—Elaine, Arkansas in 1919; Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921; the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing of 1963. Any historian can provide a longer list, although white people have generally forgotten these and other atrocities, partly out of shame.
To the extent that black people also forget, it’s largely out of self-preservation. The African-American capacity for forgiveness often comes as a blessing and a surprise. If black people contemplated vengeance like my Irish Catholic ancestors, I’ve often observed, you couldn’t live in the American South.
One would be naïve to think that anything essential has really changed in the wake of Roof’s murder spree. Except that the words and actions of many in South Carolina, “the home office of American sedition” as Esquire’s inimitable (Irish Catholic) blogger Charles P. Pierce calls it, make it possible to believe that something important already had.
I posted Pierce’s initial response to the Charleston atrocity on my Facebook page. Because when fierce indignation’s what you want, Charlie’s your man.
“We should speak of it as an assault on the idea of a political commonwealth, which is what it was,” Pierce wrote. “And we should speak of it as one more example of all of these, another link in a bloody chain of events that reaches all the way back to African wharves and Southern docks. It is not an isolated incident, not if you consider history as something alive that can live and breathe and bleed. We should speak of all these things. What happened in that church was a lot of things, but unspeakable is not one of them.”
Pierce lampooned what he considered the crocodile tears of South Carolina politicians. He urged the state’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley to look at the “flag of treason” flying at the state Capitol before professing bewilderment.
Enter Emily Hanson, a Facebook friend I haven’t actually met. Emily’s profile picture showed her kissing a draft horse, one reason we connected. Another is that she often agrees with my columns.
“I am an Arkansan living in Charleston, SC.” Hanson wrote. “Until today, I had a wonderful job telling visitors about the rich history of Charleston. I quit today because I will no longer wear the Confederate hat required by my employer. Not because the company is in any way racist or intolerant, but because I can no longer wear a symbol that represents slavery, hatred, brutality, and so much more to so many Americans.
“Mr. Pierce made many very valid points, but I caution him and anyone else who wants to get on a moral high horse and talk about the southern docks and African wharves to…PLEASE don’t make this a Southern problem! It is America’s problem and we ALL have to look at our beliefs, attitudes, and treatment of others and begin the change we want in the world to take root in our own soul. I believe it is high time to heal the wounds of our past and I did what I could today by refusing to wear a Confederate hat and praying in solidarity with the Charleston of today.”
OK, so it’s a little contradictory. It’s not a Southern problem, but she’ll be damned if she’s wearing that rebel hat.
Also from her Facebook page, I know that Emily took part in several of the multi-racial civic and religious rites that have consumed the city since that terrible night. Along with an estimated 25,000 hand-holding mourners, she joined comedian and South Carolina native Stephen Colbert on the Ravenel Bridge spanning Charleston Harbor.
“Peace and Love and Unity in the Holy City,” Colbert tweeted.
Emily joined rallies urging Gov. Nikki Haley to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. She changed her profile picture to a lovely child’s drawing of nine black angels ascending from Emanuel AME Church.
Shortly after Gov. Haley and the rest of South Carolina’s Republican establishment agreed to ask the legislature to quit playing make-believe and take down the accursed Confederate flag, Emily, bless her heart, posted some good news:
“I was contacted by my former employer, who…has decided to retire the Confederate hat as part of the uniform. (And I got my job back!) It goes to show that one person CAN make a difference! By thinking about what I could do as little old me, I have become a part of something far bigger than myself and part of a community that is ready to heal!”
Granted, it’s only a symbol. But symbols can express complex realities: This time was different. This time the murdering coward failed.
Illustration: Madeleine, 7, of Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina (via ABCNews)