Why White Terrorists Attack Black Churches

Sanctuaries like Charleston’s AME Church aren’t just places of worship—they’re political institutions that threaten white power.

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South ,Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina
Members of the public continue to pay their respects and leave flowers outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina June 19, 2015, two days after a mass shooting left nine dead during a bible study at the church.

Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

On Monday I searched for a new home in Charleston alongside my wife and young daughter; in the fall I begin my first year teaching religious studies at the College of Charleston. On Wednesday I drafted my African American religions course syllabus, featuring a visit to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—a church affectionately known as “Mother Emanuel” for its centrality in the history of black Charleston and the South. On Thursday morning I awoke to news of immeasurable loss facing the Mother Emanuel and greater Charleston community.

In the immediate aftermath of tragedies on this scale, talk quickly turns to the senselessness of violence. President Obama expressed his “deep sorrow over the senseless murders” and noted that “there is something particularly heartbreaking about the death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place a worship.” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley invoked similar terms in a statement that offered prayers for the “victims and families touched by tonight’s senseless tragedy at Emanuel AME Church.” She continued: “While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”

The harsh truth is that this act of terrorism was not senseless. The language of “senselessness” implies lack of logic or purpose. The true terror of Dylann Roof’s attack on Emanuel AME is the fact that it fits neatly into an ongoing, blood-soaked history of white violence against black women, men, and children in religious institutions. Roof reportedly told a survivor, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.” Do not be mistaken. This attack embodied white supremacy at its most blunt and brutal. And it is neither inexplicable nor a coincidence that it happened in a “place of worship.”

We often imagine religious spaces as set apart from other spheres of life, which makes an attack on a church seem especially abhorrent. But the lines that divide the religious from the political have always been more porous than Thomas Jefferson’s imagined “wall of separation” between church and state. Black churches exist as simultaneously religious and political institutions, and that has made them targets. Sermons unpacking scriptural passages also mobilize resistance to racism; hymns that praise God affirm the value of black life in the same breath. For this reason, institutions like Emanuel AME stand as affronts to white supremacy. To paraphrase Frederick Douglass, black churches have long distinguished the “Christianity of Christ” from slaveholding religion, the “Christianity of this land” that is Christian in name only. Because of this, black churches have served as ever-present threats to white power.

When we think of white terrorist attacks on black churches, the first that comes to mind is the infamous civil rights–era bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which claimed the lives of four black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. But to fully understand what has motivated white people to enter black places of worship and kill people for centuries—whether with nooses or bombs or guns—we must look back further still. One hundred and fifty years before Dylann Roof killed nine people at Mother Emanuel and a century before four members of the Ku Klux Klan dynamited the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, a wave of white Christian violence against black religious people and institutions swept the South.

Gods and spirits, songs and sermons, dancing and drums, scriptures and other sacred stories all played pivotal roles in black resistance to white domination, ever since the first Africans were carried across the Atlantic as slaves. When black Americans became Christian—which did not happen in large numbers until the 18th century—they did so in ways that challenged white assertions of black inhumanity. Slaves identified with the plight of the Israelites in the Book of Exodus and anxiously awaited the day when the wrath of God would rain down on the Egyptland of America, and they too would be set free.

Denmark Vesey is a poignant example of the role of black religion in battling white supremacy. Vesey was among the founding members of Emanuel AME, then known as “the African Church,” and most famous for his leadership in a slave rebellion planned for June 17, 1822—193 years to the day before the Mother Emanuel attack. The church played an instrumental role in supporting Vesey’s thwarted plot, and whites treated the church accordingly. In his social history Black Charlestonians, Bernard Powers Jr. called the formation of the African Church in Charleston “a rebellious act of revolutionary proportions,” and it was punished as such. Once discovered, white Charlestonians executed members and burned the church to the ground. (For more on Vesey, and the plight of the African Church in 1822, read Maurie McInnis’ Slate essay.)

Independent black religious institutions emerged en masse for the first time at the end of the Civil War, 43 years later. Freed from the economic exploitation and dehumanization of slavery, African Americans labored to liberate themselves from the surveillance and control of white religious institutions as well. Black Christians left predominantly white denominations in droves and established their own. In Charleston, Powers reports that in 1859 more than 4,000 African American parishioners remained in four Methodist Episcopal churches; by 1866 those same churches could not count a single black member. On the national level, this trend amounted to nothing short of a “black religious awakening,” as termed by the scholar Eddie Glaude Jr. It represented a “declaration of independence and self-determination” that initiated widespread institution building and led to a flowering of black political power, albeit a short-lived one.

If Emancipation precipitated the rise of independent black churches, Reconstruction’s collapse a decade later transformed those churches into prime targets of a systematic campaign of white terrorism. In the 1870s and 1880s, Northern whites once allied with black abolitionists withdrew their support. The historians David Blight and Edward Blum have both demonstrated how white people in the North and South prioritized reunion with each other over and against the prospect of rebuilding the nation free of white supremacy. With federal troops withdrawn from what had been the Confederate South, black churches and the women and men and children who made them met with destruction and devastation. White Christian paramilitary organizations like the Ku Klux Klan fought to restore white ruling order. (For more on the Klan’s activities in this period, read Kidada Williams’ article in Slate on the long history of white terrorism.) Black religious institutions were emblems of freedom in the face of domination and thus considered legitimate targets in the eyes of white supremacists. Terrorists burned black churches and lynched black people by the thousands. Vigilante violence paved the way for legal Jim Crow apartheid.

The Mother Emanuel massacre should be situated squarely in this long history of African Americans struggling to be free and the death dealing they so often meet because of it. We may never know, on an individual level, what “motivated” Dylann Roof to sit in the pews of Emanuel AME for an hour before killing nine praying people. But we certainly can and do know why white terrorists would target black people in a church. By their very nature, black churches pose threats to white dominance in both quotidian and structural ways. It would be a grave mistake to conclude that this attack bears no meaning, that it cannot be explained, that it does not “make sense.” Black churches and the people who give them life have far too frequently faced death for their resistance to racism. Failing to recognize this most recent attack for what it is does disservice to the lives lost in building this beloved community.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Charleston shooting.