This week, nine black congregants attending bible study at Charleston's historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were murdered by a 21-year old white man. As the media wrestles publicly with how to cover the incident, Brooke traces its historical roots.
Song: Don Byron, "Auf Einer Berg" & Maria Schneider, “Walking by Flashlight”
BOB: From WNYC in New York. This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. Something monstrous happened, again. On Wednesday night in South Carolina, a white man, identified as 21 year old Dylan Storm Roof, sat quietly for an hour in a bible study group at Charleston’s legendary Emanuel AME Church. According to one account, he chose the seat next to its widely-respected Pastor, Clementa Pinckney, who became a State representative at 23, a state senator at 27, and a beloved community leader his whole life. Also there, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a high school track coach and speech therapist, Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, who sang in the choir, lifelong librarian Cynthia Hurd, Allen University graduate Tywanza Sanders. And Myra Thompson, who was leading the group that night, Ministry staffer Rev. Daniel Simmons. And church custodian Ethel Lance, and her cousin, church patron Susie Jackson, who was 87. Dylan Storm Roof killed them all.
JOHNSON: Her son was trying to talk him out of doing that act of killing people, and he just said I have to do it. He said, “you rape our women, and you’ve taken over our country and you have to go.”
BROOKE: That’s Pastor Pinckney’s cousin, Sylvia Johnson, conveying an eyewitness account.. If that’s what Roof said, he disclosed a historic delusion. Sexual predation is a perennial pretext for the murder of black people..
STEVENSON: A man named Jeff Brown in 1916 was running through Cedarbluff, Mississippi to catch a train - he bumped into a white girl, and he was lynched.
BROOKE: Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative:
STEVENSON: The idea that he had some place important to be that might cause him to even casually bump into this white woman was an offense of this order. And so he was lynched. That kind of violence, that kind of oppression, was being enforced only because there was this system that did deputize every white person to engage in this kind of subordination.
BROOKE: The truth is, we wondered whether even to cover the tragedy in Charleston. We’ve covered so many of the same issues, increasingly, and recently: Such as the media’s rules for different races. If Roof were Muslim, he would have been identified, swiftly and universally as a terrorist. Reporters would focus on his recruiters, which in his case could be a multitude of white supremacist websites, or one of the many hate groups that exist legally in his own state.
But when the suspect is white, he is an aberration, immediately furnished with a name and family, a history, and diagnosis, whereas a black suspect, for instance, accused of far less, or nothing, more often is displayed as a nameless emblem of a social disease.
GHANDNOOSH: What's significant about that is when you have a named white person as a suspect, the problem and the crime becomes more localized. You can associate it with that individual. When you have unnamed suspects, you know it tends to feed into this stereotype, you know the myth of a dangerous black man.
BROOKE: Just two weeks ago, Nazgol Ghandnoosh of the Sentencing Project told us that research found that the media focussed on black on white crime, though most crimes actually are perpetrated by people of the same race on each other. And also that the media give disproportionate attention to the exceedingly rare instance of black crime on white women.
GHANDNOOSH: These disparities have been found in major news outlets, especially in television. So this does a double disservice to the general public because people get an exaggerated understanding of how much crime is committed by African Americans and they get an exaggerated sense of how likely they are to be victims of those crimes, and they don't have a clear understanding of how often African Americans are victims of these crimes.
BROOKE: We’ve seen the inevitable effort by Fox News to cast doubt on the obvious and undeniable...Roof’s explicit motivation.
KILMEADE: "Is It About Christians? It Is About White-Black? Is It About 'I Hate South Carolina'?
DOOCY: And extraordinarily they called at hate crime, uh, and some look at it as because, well, it was a white guy, apparently, in a black church. Uh, but you made a great point just a moment ago about the hostility toward Christians, and it was a church, so maybe that’s what they’re talking about. They haven’t explained it to us.
BROOKE: What a waste of air. Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates, sent their condolences but skirted the issue of race, or guns. For instance, Rick Santorum called it was an assault on religious liberty, and Rand Paul called it the result of a “sickness” the government could not fix. But guns did get some airtime.
OBAMA: Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun. Now is the time for mourning and for healing. But let’s be clear: At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it.
BROOKE: Right-to-carry advocates said that the problem was the Church was a gun-free zone. Like Sandy Hook was a gun free zone. That if everyone everywhere had a gun, there would be fewer such tragedies. The facts dispute this but… whatever.
And of course race came up, it had to. The shooter wore racist insignia on his Facebook page. And his target was profoundly symbolic. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1816, when local laws limited black prayer services to daylight hours, prohibited black literacy, and subjected defiant Church leaders to the lash. In 1822, a church founder Denmark Vesey planned a slave revolt and was executed for it. The plot prompted the construction of the Citadel, the state military college, built with its guns facing the Church. Finally the Church was burned to the ground, and all black churches were banned. Church members met in secret for more than 30 years. After the Civil War, the Church was rebuilt. Booker T Washington spoke there. And Martin Luther King. And Pastor Clementa Pinckney, murdered on Wednesday.
PINCKNEY: Many of us don't see ourselves as just a place where we come and worship but as as a beacon and as a bearer of the culture and a bearer of what makes us a people. But I like to say that this is not necessarily unique to us; it's really what America is all about.
BROOKE: Still, we wondered what there was left, for us to say. The media, the mainstream and the fringe, had merely gone through their usual paces.
PINCKNEY: Could we not argue that America is about freedom -- whether we live it out or not? But it really is about freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness, and that's would church is all about: freedom to worship and freedom from Sin, freedom to be fully what God intends us to be and have equality in the sight of God. And and sometimes you gotta make noise to do that. Sometimes you may have to die like Denmark Vesey to do that.
BROOKE: And then there was that anniversary. The 150th anniversary of Juneteenth was Friday. June 19th 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Major General Gordon Granger took Union control of Texas and freed the state’s quarter million slaves. Two and a half years it took, for the slaves, and the slave owners, to get that message. Delivered with the possibility of force.
PINCKNEY: We don't like to see our church as a museum, but as stil a place of change and still a place where we can hopefully work on the hearts and minds and spirits of our people.
BROOKE: Ralph Ellison, in his novel Juneteenth, called the holiday “The celebration of a gaudy illusion.” He also wrote: “Nothing ever stops; it divides and multiplies, and I guess sometimes it gets ground down superfine, but it doesn't just blow away.”
So that’s why we weighed in. Attention must be paid, gotta keep grinding it down, and maybe, someday, it will blow away.