Nine shot at historic US civil rights church

In mourning: Two worshippers embrace after a group prayer opposite the Emanuel AME church © PA

A young white man has been arrested for killing nine people in an African American church in South Carolina. Does the responsibility for hate crimes lie with culture or the individual?

At around 9pm on Wednesday night, a prayer meeting was taking place in a historic African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in the US state of South Carolina. A young white man had spent almost an hour with the group when he opened fire and killed nine people. There were just three survivors, and the city police chief Gregory Mullen described the act as a ‘senseless, unfathomable’ hate crime.

The suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, was arrested in North Carolina the next day. US president Barack Obama said the events recalled a ‘dark chapter’ of America’s history.

Among the dead is the church’s pastor Senator Clementa Pinckney, a member of South Carolina’s House of Representatives who has been described as ‘advocate for the people’ and a ‘very brave man’. Earlier this year, he held a vigil for Walter Scott, an unarmed young black man who was shot and killed by a white Charleston police officer while attempting to flee. Pinckney had campaigned for police to wear body cameras to help accurately record arrests after a series of high-profile cases of police brutality.

The Emanuel AME church where the shooting took place has a proud and prominent place in the story of black civil rights in the USA. It is the oldest AME church in the US south, with one of the largest black congregations. The church was burned down in 1822 after a slave revolt planned by one of its founders was foiled. In 1962, Dr Martin Luther King Jr gave a speech at the church urging the black community to vote.

There has been an outpouring of grief around the world as people express their sadness and support for the victims of the shooting and their families. Some people have also expressed anger at the language used of the shooting, which was labelled a ‘hate crime’ rather than an act of terrorism.

Others argue that evil can arise anywhere. It is our decisions which should define us, they say, not the society we are a part of. It is not right to blame Roof’s actions on his race, just as it is not right to blame any other culture for the criminals in its midst.

Structural violence?

The events in Charleston are heartbreaking. It feels impossible to imagine how someone could murder nine people who had gathered in worship.

Dylann Roof has been described by officials as ‘horrible’ and ‘deranged’, painting the picture of a man who acted alone. But some have questioned why white criminals are so often portrayed as acting independently when there is a long history of white violence towards minorities. If each violent act is spoken about as an isolated event, society appears blameless — and without proper criticism, this could happen again.

You Decide

  1. Is it right to blame culture for the crimes of individuals?
  2. In 1963, a predominantly black church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama. How far have civil rights come in the US?

Activities

  1. Write a news story reporting on the events in Charleston, thinking carefully about which details you focus on and how you describe them.
  2. Focus on one key event in the US civil rights movement and plan an essay explaining its significance.

Some People Say...

“We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Martin Luther King

What do you think?

Q & A

This is horrible. How can we possibly feel safe?
It is a terrible, sad story, but remember that attacks like these are incredibly rare — you shouldn’t feel afraid for your own life. Shootings in particular are more common in the US, which has specific laws in its constitution allowing the right to ‘bear arms’. This makes it far easier to buy and carry guns in the US than in many other countries.
How many crimes are caused by racism in the US?
The FBI reported that 48.5% of hate crimes were motivated by racial bias. Of these, 66.4% were against black or African American people, and 52.4% were committed by white offenders. Other hate crimes in the country were motivated by bias against a person’s sexuality, religion, and to a lesser extent gender or disability.

Word Watch

African Methodist Episcopal
The AME broke away from America’s Methodist Episcopal church in 1816 amid continued discrimination against its black members. Many meetings were held in secret after all-black churches were banned in 1834. The church was recognised after the civil ended war in 1865.
South Carolina
Race relations in this southern state have long been troubled. It was one of the first to join the pro-slavery Confederacy before the outbreak of civil war, and the Confederate flag is still flown above its government buildings today. 27.9% of its population identified themselves as black or African American in 2013.
High-profile cases
The shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer sparked riots in Ferguson, Missouri last year. Earlier in 2015, similar riots took place in Baltimore after Freddie Gray died of injuries sustained in the back of a police van.
Terrorism
The FBI defines domestic terrorism as acts which are ‘dangerous to human life’ and intended to ‘intimidate or coerce a civilian population’, influence government policy or ‘affect the conduct of a government’.

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