Charleston mass shooting: Reminder of past racist attacks on black churches

A suspect in the mass shooting at a black church in Charleston, S.C., has been arrested. Dylann Roof is alleged to have made racist remarks before killing nine church members gathered for prayer and Bible study.

David Goldman/AP
Worshippers embrace following a group prayer across the street from the scene of a shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. A white man opened fire during a prayer meeting inside the historic black church, killing nine people, including the pastor, in an assault that authorities described as a hate crime.

The suspect in the Charleston, S.C., church mass shooting, identified as 21-year-old Dylann Roof, has been arrested.

At this point, motive or possible connection with any hate group has yet to be determined in Wednesday evening’s shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, which killed six women and three men gathered for Bible study and a prayer service.

But the horrific massacre was a reminder that black churches in the South have been the target of racist attacks in the past. Bombed in the 1960s, when they served as organizing centers for the civil rights movement, they also saw a rash of arsons in the 1990s. Other congregations have survived shooting sprees.

“Yesterday's massacre confirms that for Black communities, there is no safe haven from the violence and brutality of racism, not even a house of worship,” Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange.org, said in a statement. “More than 52 years after the Birmingham Church bombing [killing four young girls], which galvanized the civil rights movement, we are forced to face the reality that Black life is under attack.”

Speaking to reporters at the White House, President Obama also touched on racist violence directed at black churches.

"Any death of this sort is a tragedy. Any shooting involving multiple victims is a tragedy. There is something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship,” the president said.

Wednesday night’s tragedy in Charleston was the deadliest mass shooting in the US since 12 people were killed at the Washington Navy Yard in September 2013.

In his statement, Obama also touched on recurring gun violence in the United States and the political difficulty of enacting tougher gun control.

“We don't have all the facts, but we do know that once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hand on a gun,” he said. “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.”

While the investigation has just begun in this most recent incident, officials say it involved a single attacker who entered the church, spent an hour there during the service, then began firing a .45 caliber handgun, stopping to reload several times.

“We don’t have any reason to believe that anybody else was involved,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said at a press conference Thursday morning.

The suspect has been described by relatives and friends as introverted and with few friends. His uncle, Carson Cowles, told Reuters, “He was like 19 years old, he still didn't have a job, a driver's license or anything like that and he just stayed in his room a lot of the time.”

A Facebook photo of Mr. Roof shows him wearing a jacket with patches appearing to represent apartheid-era South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia. His uncle said Roof’s father had given the young man a handgun as a recent birthday present.

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Wednesday that the Justice Department has opened a hate crimes investigation in the case. Witnesses say the alleged shooter announced that he was attacking parishioners because they were black.

“It is a crime that has reached into the heart of that community,” she said. “Even as we struggle to comprehend this heartbreaking event, I want to tell the people of Charleston that we will do everything in our power to help heal this community and make it whole again.”

Among those killed Wednesday night was the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator. (Other victims have yet to be identified.)

According to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Reverend Pinckney “answered the call to preach at the age of thirteen and received his first appointment to pastor at the age of eighteen.”

Pinckney, who was married and had two daughters, was elected to the state House in 1996 at age 23, making him the youngest member at the time.

South Carolina House minority leader Todd Rutherford told the Associated Press that Pinckney served his flock as well as his constituents.

"He never had anything bad to say about anybody, even when I thought he should," Mr. Rutherford said. "He was always out doing work either for his parishioners or his constituents. He touched everybody."

At this point in the investigation, it’s unclear whether the suspect had any connection to hate groups.

Heidi Beirich, director of The Intelligence Project for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Montgomery, Ala., says such groups have been growing over the past 10 years and "for several years South Carolina has been the place with the highest density of hate groups." The SPLC maintains an interactive map of hate groups in the United States.

The states with the highest number of hate groups by population density in the United States have traditionally been South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi, Ms. Beirich says. "There's been an ongoing backlash to the changes we're seeing in society. We're getting to be a more demographically diverse place…. So if you come from a tradition of racist beliefs and you see what's happening in this society right now, you're not happy about it.”

But the president sounded a note of hope in his comments that hatred would not have the last word.

"The good news is I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship, indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome," he said.

Down the street from the church Thursday, a group of pastors gathered to pray, ABC News reported.
 
 "We need that peace, Lord," members of the prayer circle were heard saying. "We need that peace you talk about in your word."

 Monitor correspondent Lisa Suhay and staff writer Henry Gass contributed to this report.

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