History Matters: Historians Respond to the Charleston Shooting [Updated]

Some of the most important work historians do is about the present. We’ve witnessed that over the past few days as the country reels from the news of a racially motivated attack on black church members at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. As UNC Press authors have been writing articles, tweeting, and speaking to broadcast and print media, they have helped shape and inform public dialogue in the crucial first days of dealing with this cataclysmic event.

One thing is clear: history matters.

From the Confederacy to apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, from Denmark Vesey to Clementa Pinckney, there is no way to tell the story of what happened on June 17, 2015, without talking about deeper histories of race, religion, and violence.

We share here some of those deeper histories, in the words of historians whose expertise ranges across centuries and across boundaries geopolitical, racial, and cultural. We hope the histories linked here will invite and inform further conversations you might have with others as you wrestle with the present and set a path for the future.


Podcast: On Second Thought – Georgia Public Broadcasting

“Targeting Black Churches” segment on the history of racial violence
Amy Kate Bailey (co-author of Lynched: The Victims of Southern Mob Violence)

“400 years of racist violence by white Americans is not so easy to forgive,” latimes.com

“Whatever Santorum might believe, the family members’ statements will not deliver white Americans to some misty land where they no longer have to hear about the impact of nearly 400 years of racist violence. For as the Rev. William Barber told the congregation at Manhattan’s Riverside Church on Sunday, only ‘the perpetrator has been caught. The killer remains at large.’ Roof explosively acted out a disdain for black life that is all too pervasive in American society.”
Edward E. Baptist (author of Creating an Old South: Middle Florida’s Plantation Frontier before the Civil War and The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism) [added 6/24/2015]

“Shooters of color are called ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs.’ Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’?” washingtonpost.com

“This time, I hope that reporters and newscasters will ask the questions that get to the root of acts of racially motivated violence in America. Where did this man, who killed parishioners in their church during Bible study, learn to hate black people so much?”
Anthea Butler (author of Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World)

“The decision to forgive is rooted in faith. The decision to forget is rooted in racism.” theguardian.com

“History and scripture are just the foundations for the stunning words of forgiveness from the families of those murdered at Emmanuel AME, expressions apparently driven by sincerity and the Christian witness of the surviving family members. However, forgiveness deployed in the context of American race relations become part of the ritual of what I call racial forgiveness.”
Anthea Butler [added 6/24/2015]

“Racial Violence, History, and the Debate over the Confederate Flag,” renegadesouth.wordpress.com

“I am well aware of the ‘heritage’ argument against removal of the Confederate flag, particularly the insistence by many that the flag commemorates the brave soldiers who fought for the Southern Cause, and that it has nothing to do with slavery. . . As long as the argument about secession (and the flag) is framed as an ideological dispute among white men, the above statement will ring true to many. It’s when we include the ‘others’ of society—most pointedly, but not exclusively, people of color—that the argument breaks down. For what was the ‘Southern Way of Life’ based on, if not slavery?”
Victoria Bynum (author of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies) [added 6/22/2015]

“Why South Carolina Must Remove the Confederate Battle Flag from Capitol Grounds,” southinpopculture.com

“The South Carolina State House is the people’s house. It doesn’t belong to the CEO of Volvo or any other business considering locating a factory in South Carolina. It belongs to all of South Carolina’s citizens, not just the ones who are clinging to a relic of white supremacy.”
Karen L. Cox (author of Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture)

“Before Charleston’s Church Shooting, a Long History of Attacks,” nytimes.com

“Reports of yesterday’s tragedy have invariably noted that an earlier incarnation of the Emanuel Church was home to Denmark Vesey, a lay minister who was one of the church’s founders, but the connections between Vesey, the congregation’s long history of activism and the events of June 17 run far deeper than that.”
Douglas Egerton (author of Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802 and He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey)

“Faith in Charleston,” uncpressblog.com

“The complex history of religion in Charleston serves as both a cautionary tale and a reason for hope.”
Steve Estes (author of Charleston in Black and White: Race and Power in the South after the Civil Rights Movement)

Podcast: “Confederate Flag Debate Symbolizes Rapid Change In the South,” All Things Considered, npr.org

“Well, there is a mythic view of the South that’s symbolized by the film ‘Gone With The Wind’ that looks back fondly at slavery as a time when everything was happily in place – in place for whites. When we say the South lost the Civil War, we mean the white South. The blacks were liberated.”
William Ferris (coeditor of The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture) [added 6/24/2015]

Video: “Civil War History and the Confederate Flag,” Washington Journal, C-SPAN

“One of the great ironies in the history of the United States is the gambling effort on the part of eleven southern states to protect the institution of slavery in the long term, actually brought its end in four years.”
Gary W. Gallagher (author of Causes Won, Lost, and Forgotten: How Hollywood and Popular Art Shape What We Know about the Civil War) [added 6/30/2015]

“If Clementa Pinckney Had Lived,” nytimes.com

“I have no doubt that had the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney lived, he would have become known — and celebrated — across our country for his leadership, rather than sealed immortally in tragedy, one more black martyr in a line stretching back to the more than 800 slave voyages that ended at Charleston Harbor. I know this because I filmed a long interview with Mr. Pinckney — who was killed in his church in Charleston, S.C., along with eight congregants on Wednesday evening — for a PBS documentary series three years ago.”
Henry Louis Gates Jr. (author of Finding Your Roots, Season 1: The Official Companion to the PBS Series)

“It’s Not the Old South That Died This Week. It Was the New South.” hnn.us

“By saying ‘You’ve got to go’ and declaring on the Internet a race war incorporating the Confederate flag, Roof inadvertently endangered southern white politicians’ aspirations for international leadership.”
Glenda Gilmore (author of Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920) [added 6/26/2015]

“What the Confederate flag really means to America today, according to a race historian,” washingtonpost.com

“But what is far more problematic is that there is no way to separate the fact that it is on all of those flag poles and on those license plates, that it’s on t-shirts and coffee cups and other paraphernalia, precisely because it was resurrected in the 1940s and 1950s as part of a massive resistance campaign against the civil rights movement.”
with Matthew Pratt Guterl (author of Seeing Race in Modern America)

“An Honest, Stream-of-Consciousness Conversation about Race,” psmag.com

“Professor Gerald Horne talks about America’s history of racism, and why the South Carolina shooting can’t be considered an isolated incident.”
with Gerald Horne (author of From the Barrel of a Gun: The United States and the War against Zimbabwe, 1965-1980)

“America’s Long History of Racial Fear,” werehistory.org

“Calling Wednesday’s shootings in Charleston a ‘tragedy’ makes this explosion of murderous violence seem like an accident. It isn’t an accident. It is the legacy of an excruciating history that began with racial slavery and continued through the post-Civil War campaign to maintain white supremacy – a campaign that has persisted to the present day and which shapes how many white Americans think about and respond to black Americans.”
Stephen Kantrowitz (author of Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy) [added 6/25/2015]

“Power and Prayer,” medium.com

“One thread in the conversation in the days following this attack is an implicit critique of prayer as an ineffectual response and the notion that the church is a point of vulnerability for black Americans. . . . This discussion frames prayer and churchgoing as passivity. On the surface it makes sense — this unthinkable violence has caused so many in Charleston to pray publicly at the at the foot of Mother Emmanuel’s steps. The very pose of prayer — heads bowed, hands lifted in submission — looks like acquiescence. However, this read masks the history of resistance that is at the heart of the black church in general and Emmanuel AME in particular.”
Blair L. M. Kelley (author of Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson) [added 6/25/2015]

“The First Attack on Charleston’s AME Church,” slate.com

“In 1822, white residents burned the predecessor to today’s church, fearing an insurrection by the city’s black majority.”
Maurie McInnis (author of The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston)

“On the Confederate Battle Flag,” civilwarpop.com

“In removing Confederate flags from its inventory, Walmart is indirectly suggesting that its customers should not display it, and that introduces a host of issues.”
Christian McWhirter (author of Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music in the Civil War) [added 6/24/2015]

“What Is Whiteness?” nytimes.com

“We don’t know the history of whiteness, and therefore are ignorant of the many ways it has changed over the years. If you investigate that history, you’ll see that white identity has been no more stable than black identity.”
Nell Irvin Painter (author of Southern History across the Color Line)

“Tourism, Terrorism, and the Memory of Slavery in Charleston, South Carolina,” processhistory.org

“Photographs taken of Roof in the months before the shootings show him visiting a number of historic sites in South Carolina, including several in the Charleston area. . . . These trips did nothing to change Roof’s historical misconceptions. Instead, they appear to have functioned as a perverse form of tourism porn, pumping him up for his self-appointed ‘mission’ to murder the Emanuel worshippers.”
Blain Roberts (author of Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South) and Ethan J. Kytle [added 6/25/2015]

“Take Down the Confederate Flags, but Not the Monuments,” theatlantic.com

“There are good reasons to get rid of these monuments, but there are better reasons to leave them up.”
Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle [added 6/26/2015]

“Flags and Flesh: Region, Race, and the Simulacra of Racial Terror,” newsouthnegress.com

“Because of course white people do not talk about actual racial terrorism, its flesh, as it were–extrajudicial murders, police murders, racialized sexual violence, displacement of communities, food deserts, employment discrimination, unequal health treatment, chemical waste dumps, microaggressions–but rather the symbols, simulacra, and smoke of racial terrorism, and the backwards white folks who the other white folks think they are not. at. all. like because those backwards white folks cling to those symbols of racial terrorism and are poor and live in small towns and are on meth.”
Zandria Robinson (author of This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South) [added 6/29/2015]

“The Charleston Massacre and the Rape Myth of Reconstruction,” werehistory.org

“But if Dylann Roof is deranged, his derangement is deeply steeped in a history of white supremacy that has long expressed the threat of black economic and political power in sexual terms.”
Joshua D. Rothman (author of Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861) [added 6/22/2015]

“The Long and Proud History of Charleston’s AME Church,” hnn.us

“In a fitting coda, Robert Vesey, Denmark Vesey’s son, helped rebuild the Charleston church in 1865, after the Civil War and emancipation. It was renamed Emanuel AME church, a name that it carries to this today.”
Manisha Sinha (author of The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina)

“He had to be carefully taught,” southernstudies.org

“Roof said he wanted to start a race war; this is a common theme among politically organized white supremacists and depicted in their favorite book, ‘The Turner Diaries,’ which also helped inspire Timothy McVeigh to commit the Oklahoma City bombings. He is part of something, and something dangerous.”
Timothy B. Tyson (author of Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power and co-editor of Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy) [added 6/29/2015]

“Dylann Roof and the white supremacist in us all,” newsobserver.com

“It’s not just the card-carrying white supremacists, the kind who run neo-Nazi websites, who are the problem. Instead, white supremacy is an idea that has been one of the most prevalent notions in our history – that God created people in a hierarchy of moral, cultural, intellectual worth, with lighter-skinned people at the top and darker-skinned people at the bottom. We can stomp out this idea in time, I believe, but not until we see its pervasiveness and complexity.”
Timothy B. Tyson [added 6/29/2015]

“Dylann Roof and the White Fear of a Black Takeover,” latimes.com

“For most of the South’s history, the fear of African Americans ‘taking over’ has permeated mainstream political culture. ”
Jason Morgan Ward (author of Defending White Democracy: The Making of a Segregationist Movement and the Remaking of Racial Politics, 1936-1965)

#CharlestonSyllabus archive of suggested readings at aaihs.org

Chad Williams (author of Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era) and Kidada E. Williams (contributor to The World the Civil War Made) helped get #CharlestonSyllabus trending on Twitter with suggested readings to help inform classroom discussion.

“#CharlestonSyllabus and the Work of African American History,” aaihs.org

“Social media and the blogosphere have emerged as vibrant spaces for both the production and dissemination of knowledge about African American history and its relation to our contemporary racial environment. Hoping to harness this power, I reached out to Wayne State University associate professor Kidada Williams, who actively uses Twitter to share stories about all things academia related, and University of Iowa assistant professor Keisha N. Blain, one of the leaders along with Christopher Cameron, associate professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). I broached my idea for a #CharlestonSyllabus, similar to the #FergusonSyllabus, to raise critical historical awareness about recent events and serve as a resource for educators and the general public more broadly. We began tweeting out book titles and, within an hour, #CharlestonSyllabus was trending.”
Chad Williams [added 6/25/2015]

“Centuries of Violence,” Slate.com

“For black Americans, it is impossible to separate the massacre in Charleston from hundreds of years of vicious attacks on our churches and communities.”
Kidada E. Williams

[updated 6/22/15 to include Bynum and Rothman; updated 6/24/15; updated 6/25/2015; updated 6/26/2015; updated 6/29/2015; updated 6/30/2015]