Seeking a sacred space of their own, African-Americans often found pain

June 26, 2015
Members of the public line along the street as a hearse carrying Reverend Clementa Pinckney arrives at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for a public viewing in Charleston

Crowds watch as a hearse with the body of Reverend Clementa Pinckney arrives at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for a public viewing in Charleston, South Carolina, June 25, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Though I knew none of the victims, the murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina — and the dismally predictable storm still rumbling through the blogosphere — have left me deeply dispirited. I have spent much of my adult life studying the history of the AME Church, not only in the United States but also in South Africa, whose apartheid-era flag appears, along with the Confederate battle flag and the flag of white-supremacist Rhodesia, in photographs posted on the Web by Dylann Roof, the alleged murderer.

Over the years, I’ve spent many hours in AME services and prayer meetings, usually the only white person in attendance. I count the openness and generosity of my reception as one of the graces of my life. I wonder if I will be so welcome now.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (C) and lawmakers watch as the casket of the late South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney arrives at the State House in Columbia

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (C) and lawmakers watch as the casket of the late South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney arrives at the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, June 24, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Like most independent black institutions, the AME Church was created as a refuge from a hostile white world. At the inaugural AME service in Baltimore, the presiding minister cited the prophet Micah: “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.”

Over the course of the 19th century, the AME Church became a cornerstone of black life in America, a foundation for self-assertion and community uplift. The church published newspapers. It sponsored lectures and literary societies. It established hundreds of schools, from humble night schools, where the formerly enslaved could learn to read, to Wilberforce University, the nation’s oldest historically black college.

During the brief season of Reconstruction that followed the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865, scores of AME ministers held political office, including R.H. Cain, who represented Charleston, South Carolina, in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Precisely because they symbolized black self-possession, AME churches throughout their history provoked nightmares of white dispossession — a fear Roof seemed to echo with his reported comment that black people are “taking over our country.” Critics regularly warned that the church, with its emphasis on education and respectability, promoted unhealthy notions of racial equality.

From such suspicions, it was but a short step to violence. Black churches were routinely targeted by white mobs in antebellum America. Philadelphia alone experienced five such “race riots” — pogroms, really, in which whites rampaged through black neighborhoods, assaulting residents and burning community institutions. In 1825, a gang of young white men put red pepper into the stove at the city’s Mother Bethel AME Church, filling the crowded sanctuary with choking smoke. Four church members died in the ensuring stampede.

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Investigators at the 16th Street Baptist Church after it was bombed on September, 15, 1963. REUTERS/Federal Bureau of Investigation

Attacks on black churches did not end with slavery. During the pitched battles of the Reconstruction era, night riders routinely targeted churches, particularly those that housed schools or served as centers of electoral mobilizing. The violent campaign against the Civil Rights movement produced another wave of attacks. In September 1963, the nation reeled, as it reels today, at the spectacle of four young girls killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.

In neighboring Mississippi, assaults on churches became routine. In the summer of 1964 alone, more than 20 black churches were bombed or burned by members of the Ku Klux Klan and their allies.

As it happens, I was in Mississippi when I learned of the assault in Charleston. I was in the state archives in Jackson, reading documents related to an attack on another black church that took place almost exactly 51 years earlier. In the night of June 16, 1964, Klansmen torched Mt. Zion Methodist Church, a tiny wooden church in the black hamlet of Longdale, a few miles northeast of the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi. The church was targeted because members had agreed to host a Freedom School, part of the summer’s voter registration campaign.

The burning of Mt. Zion is of particular historical significance because it precipitated one of the most notorious crimes of the Civil Rights era: the murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. The trio, a black Mississippian and two white New Yorkers, all working under the auspices of the Congress of Racial Equality, visited the ruins of the church on June 21. On the drive home, they were arrested by the local deputy sheriff and delivered into the hands of waiting Klansmen.

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FBI Missing persons poster , 1964. Shows the photographs of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

One occupational hazard of being an historian is entertaining contradictory feelings of strangeness and familiarity — a sense at once of how profoundly the world has changed and how much remains the same. But rarely have I felt that contradiction more keenly than I did sitting in the archives, trying to make sense of the violent death throes of Jim Crow half a century ago while simultaneously absorbing the news from Charleston. How remote the past seems, and yet how terribly near.

Unable to concentrate on the file in front of me, I left the archives to take a walk. On a construction site next door, the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is going up. The decision to create the museum attracted a fair bit of controversy. Criticism has come, predictably, from bitter-end segregationists, but also from civil rights movement veterans. Some have dismissed it as an attempt to “sanitize” Mississippi, luring tourist dollars with a tales of a redemptive past, while deflecting attention from the profound racial inequities of the present.

How, such critics ask, can a state profess to honor the legacy of the Civil Rights movement — a movement that focused on securing black people’s right to vote — while simultaneously enacting one of the nation’s most severe voter identification laws?

Time will tell what becomes of the museum, which is slated to open in 2017. But the real museum is all around, for those with the eyes to see. Across the street stands the Old State Capitol, where Mississippians enacted the state’s Ordinance of Secession and, 30 years later, the 1890 Constitution, which, after the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed it, provided the model for the systematic disfranchisement of black citizens all over the South.

Immediately to the east stand the state fairgrounds, where livestock pens served as a makeshift prison for hundreds of students arrested during the Jackson protests of 1963. Jackson’s then-mayor, Allen Thompson, boasted they could hold 10,000 demonstrators if necessary.

To the north and west stand two pillars of Mississippi Christendom, Galloway United Methodist Church and First Baptist Church — the Baptist Vatican, locals call it. In 1963, both churches were sites of Civil Rights “kneel-ins,” in which integrated teams of worshippers sought to attend Sunday services. Congregants at both churches chose overwhelmingly to uphold segregation. Ushers at Galloway, assigned the task of barring the church door, whimsically dubbed themselves “the color guard.”

Today, of course, both churches are open to all. Yet genuine racial integration remains elusive. As the old saw goes, Sunday morning at 11 remains the most segregated hour in America.

A few blocks farther north, where State Street crosses Fortification, a black man in a black suit is distributing copies of the Final Call, the official organ of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. Members of the Nation have also found their own vine and fig tree, though in their case they reject not only interracial worship but Christianity itself — which founder Elijah Muhammad decried as a tool of white oppression.

It strikes me that the shooting at Emanuel AME could not have happened at one of the Nation’s temples. Roof would not have been allowed inside.

Given my scholarly interests, I occasionally read the Final Call, and I am very curious to read it today. But he does not offer me a copy, and I am loath to ask for one, lest my interest be somehow misinterpreted.

How snugly our skins fit us.

We pass without words or eye contact, one more turn in our nation’s continual racial minuet.

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