Late Wednesday, after a gunman murdered nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, many felt shock and anger that stoked memories of other mass shootings. Our violent nation has grieved for slain innocents at an elementary school in Newtown; a Tucson political rally; a movie theater in Aurora; a Virginia college campus; and other sites of mass killings, which are more common than many suppose. The possibility of falling victim to such attacks is a burden all Americans share.
And the attack on the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and its congregation also stoked memories of an additional burden borne by blacks: the hate crimes and terrorist attacks that have targeted their places of worship for generations, each incident signaling virulent animus toward the entire black community.
Most Americans learn in history class about the September 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama, when Ku Klux Klan terrorists killed four girls. “They died between the sacred walls of the church of God,” Reverend Martin Luther King said. “And they were discussing the eternal meaning of love.”
Black churches suffered at the hands of thugs and terrorists throughout the Civil Rights era, as they had for a century before, but such attacks aren’t a matter of remote history. As recently as the 1990s, a wave of fire-bombings hit black churches.
Congressional hearings were held in 1996 at the end of a two-year period when such arson spiked across the southeast. In South Carolina alone, black churches that suffered probable arson attacks included Mt. Zion AME Church in Williamsburg, Macedonia Baptist Church in Manning, Saint Paul Baptist Church in Lexington, Rosemary Baptist Church in Barnwell, St. John Baptist Church in Dixiana, Effington Baptist Church, Mount Olivet Baptist Church, and Allen’s Chapel. One member of Congress likened fire-bombings in those years to “the return of a biblical plague.” The most recent burning of a black church to make national headlines occurred in Massachusetts the day Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first black president. A white man was later convicted in what prosecutors called a racially motivated arson attack.
One wonders how many black congregants are remembering bygone fires today.
In 2013, the most recent year for which federal data is available, the FBI identified 3,563 victims of racially motivated hate crimes. Black victims constituted 66 percent of the total. 21 percent were victims of anti-white bias. 4.6 percent were victims of anti-Asian bias. And 4.5 percent were victims of anti-Native American bias. (Most of these hate crimes were not fatal.) If Wednesday’s attack is confirmed to be a hate crime (as authorities said in early reports) or domestic terrorism, it will share horrific similarities with the 2012 attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, where a white supremacist killed 6 people, as well as other attacks here and abroad on synagogues, mosques, and churches by religious bigots.
Any one of us might die in a mass murder. But today, as the nation mourns the victims of Charleston and awaits details about the perpetrator of the attack, black Americans will be most awake to the reality that there are bigots who want to see them dead. What they’re owed by their fellow Americans is vocal solidarity, so that they’re as awake to the depth and breadth of the belief that black lives matter.