In June of 2015, a twenty-one-year-old white boy attended a bible study at a predominately black church in Charleston, South Carolina. Partway through the study, Roof opened fire on the group members, killing nine of the twelve and shooting each victim several times, being sure to work in racial slurs and epithets in the process. Even in the midst of similar violent episodes and attacks and the thick racial tension that covers America like a blanket, the attack was brutal enough to be shocking. The role of race was immediately called into question and the attack sparked the national conversation about the still prevalent problem and the inequality that minorities continue to experience to this day. This sample expository essay explores Roof’s actions and how violence fueled his rage.
South Carolina Church Shooting: What happened?
On the night of June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof attended a bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He spent almost an hour participating in the bible study before he opened fire on everyone inside the church. Three men and six women were killed; Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the church and a state senator, Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, who was also the high school’s girl’s track coach, Cynthia Hurd, a librarian for the town’s library, Tywanza Sanders, a recent Allen University graduate, Susie Jackson, an elderly and beloved member of the congregation, Reverend Depayne Middleton, a mother of four, Reverend Daniel Summons, a retired pastor, and Myra Thompson, the wife of a vicar at Holy Trinity REC (Berenson 2015). Three people survived the attack. One of them, Felicia Sanders, said that when Roof started shooting, the group had closed their eyes and lowered their heads in prayer. She said:
“We were just about to say the prayer to be released. He caught us with our eyes closed.” (Chuck 2015).
Sanders was attending the bible study with her son, Tywanza, her eleven-year-old granddaughter, and another relative. She, her granddaughter, and a congregation member named Polly Sheppard were the only survivors of the attack (Chuck 2015). She recalls telling her granddaughter to pretend to be dead while her son, already shot, attempted to crawl across the room to protect their other relative, trying to save her in his final moments.
South Carolina acts quickly to catch Dylann Roof
The following day, Dylann Roof was arrested in North Carolina. He was charged with nine counts of murder and one count possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime and on June 19, 2015, his bail was set at one million dollars (“Charleston Shooting” 2015). The serial murder incident was clearly labeled as a hate crime and an investigation found that Roof had been planning the murders for months (Chuck 2015). His goal was to increase the already heavy racial tension in the United States by getting what he saw as retribution for black-on-white crimes. He wrote a manifesto, describing his disgust at the country’s reaction to the death of Trayvon Martin, writing:
“At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?” (Sanchez 2015).
It was obvious the divide in race relations was his fuel. It was then that he began to feel that he was on a mission. He wrote that he selected Charleston because, at one time, it had the highest ratio of blacks to whites in the country but now it has:
“no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet.” (Sanchez 2015).
The church was actually built by a black man named Denmark Vesey in 1822. Vesey planned a slave revolt and was convicted in a secret trial after witnesses were tortured into testifying against him. After he was hung, the church was burned to the ground, but his sons rebuilt it in his name, making it a sinister pick for the scene of another hate crime (Pierce 2015). In his manifesto, Roof goes on to explain that if no one else will do it, then he must. The manifesto was published on his website, which also featured images of Roof aiming guns, burning the American flag, flying the Confederate flag, and other symbols of racism. His posts featured many racial slurs. His friend said:
He boasted that he was about to do “something crazy” and start a race war and was clear about his feelings that the races should be segregated, recounting, “He wanted it to be white with white and black with black.” (Sanchez 2015).
The friend took his claims to the authorities the morning after the shooting. Others described him as transient, struggling with school and coming and going as he pleased before dropping out in ninth grade. They remember that he was a little wild, but don’t ever recall him being violent. Roof was arrested in February of 2015 at a local mall for possession of Suboxone without a prescription, which is used to treat heroin addiction.
The gun used in the shooting was a .45-caliber handgun that Roof purchased from a gun store in Charleston in April of 2015. The gun held thirteen rounds and witnesses states that Roof reloaded his weapon a number of times, shooting each victim more than once. He reportedly showed no emotion in court when the family members of his victims addressed him. While some professed forgiveness for him, but Sanders spoke of the pain of losing her son, telling him:
“Every fiber of my body hurts, and I will never be the same.” (Sanchez 2015).
He appeared distant and disconnected from what was happening around him. In September, a South Carolina prosecutor announced that she will seek the death penalty for Roof, saying:
“This was the ultimate crime and justice from our state calls for the ultimate punishment.” (Ellis 2015).
Roof has officially been charged with thirty-three federal offenses; twelve under hate crime laws, another dozen under civil rights provisions that protect religious freedom, and nine for using a firearm for murder. Roof has pled not guilty to these crimes, despite having confessed to law enforcement. The trial is scheduled for July 11 in 2016 and he faces either the death penalty or life in prison. UPDATE: The trial has concluded and Roof was sentenced to death.
Racial tensions in the United States
This terrible tragedy came at a time when racial tension was already high in the United States. Though we often talk about how far we have come as a nation, racism is still alive and well and remains embedded into many aspects of our society. Sociologist Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, associate professor of sociology at The City College of New York, feels that American society is rich in messages about the meaning and limitations of race. For example, the immigration debate is often centered around Latinos, though immigrants come from a huge number of countries and locations.
Other examples include how welfare issues are most often framed around African-Americans, though the majority of those on welfare are white, or how terrorism has become exclusively associated with Muslims. Dr. Lewis-McCoy says that these ideas, and our typically unquestioned endorsement of them, help to perpetuate racism, leading people to believe that the differences they think they observe are naturally occurring (Howard 2015). These ideas can help lead to people believing in the inferiority or superiority is certain races. In addition, our society is ripe with disparities between the races in everything from wealth holdings (the average white family has $111,146 in wealth holdings while the average Latino family has $8,348 and the average black family has $7,113) to home loans to access to higher education, and in most instances, the advantage belongs to the white race.
Dr. Lewis-McCoy points out that the Charleston shooting parallels eerily with the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham church, which was racially motivated, in which four young girls were killed advocating for equal rights for Black Americans. In an attempt to understand the ideologies associated with racism, we must first observe that today’s ‘colorblind racism’ demands that people are much quieter about their hatred.
The Civil Rights Act did not change the hearts of Americans across the country; it simply made it unpopular to express racist sentiments (Howard 2015). The racial tension that the United States is currently experiencing is hardly anything new- it is actually deeply rooted in the fabric and history of the nation. In Birmingham, the church attack was made in an effort to scare black people out of fighting for equal rights. The Charleston shooting was done, Roof said, because black people “rape our women and [are] taking over our country. And [they] have to go” (Howard 2015). Though they are decades apart, the attacks are very similar- both were done out of fear of the usurpation of power.
Black Americans outraged over South Carolina shooting
After the Charleston shooting, singer Solange Knowles tweeted, “Where can we be black?” This gave voice to the often ignored but definitely present idea that is a problem to be black in the United States. Following the reconstruction period after the Civil War, Jim Crow laws were out into place to create racial segregation in public schools, transportation, restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains. Though these rules came after it was declared that slavery was illegal, these laws were still set up to preserve the hierarchy of rights and access to resources on the basis of race (Cole 2015). While slavery was legally abolished over a century and a half ago, legalized segregation and discrimination have only been done away with since the 1960s. Still, underlying racist beliefs still plague our society. Many still believe that intelligence and skin tone are correlated and black students are punished more harshly for disobedience in school than their white counterparts (Cole 2015). There is a noticeable race gap in wage, health, life expectancy, the amount of attention given by teachers, and prison sentences. In 2015, America has still not gotten the hang of true equality.
The Confederate Flag: South Carolina sparked other racial debates
The Charleston shooting has also sparked the national conversation about the Confederate Flag, whether it is a justified piece of American history or a shameful relic of our racist history. Sociologists, journalists, and politicians speculated over the Confederate flag’s influence over South Carolina’s citizens and its potential connection to the Charleston shooting. The flag used to be an emblem for racial intolerance and the debate over its place on the South Carolina flag has been a hot topic for debate in the State House since the 1990s.
The debate culminated in 2000 when it was removed from the top of the state house and moved to the front, which was supposed to represent progress, though many African-American government officials must now walk past it to get into work (Jenkins 2015). However, many South Carolinians believe that the flag is an important part of their culture. In South Carolina, Abraham Lincoln is viewed as an aggessor, the Civil War is referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression”, little league teams are sponsored by the Songs of the Confederate Veterans, and children are encouraged in school to write essays glorifying Robert E. Lee.
Many Civil War buffs from the area will tell you that people like Dylann Roof are not an indictment of the Confederate flag itself. Instead, they say, the flag is a cultural token to be respected and celebrated. Others argue, though, that the flag is very much a symbol of hate; once again, a terrible and pointless murder of people of color is associated with the confederate flag. The flag may not have created Roof’s hostility towards people of other races, but it did something much more dangerous- it harbored his obsession, making him view his hatred and merely pride (Jenkins 2015). He justified his actions under the banner of the Confederate flag. While the flag did not make him commit these horrific crimes, he wielded his belief in white supremacy like a sword and wrapped himself in the flag while doing so.
Roof responsible for his own actions, but racism plays large role
It seems as though mass shootings and racially-motivated crimes occur more and more often in the United States of America. While we would like to believe that in this day and age, we have progressed past such an archaic and barbaric idea as racial inferiority, the Charleston, South Carolina shooting made it clear that racial tensions in our country remain high and continue to be a prevalent problem that begs our attention. The terrible crimes committed by Dylann Roof against twelve innocent people based solely on their race serves as a reminder that America still has a long way to go before we can totally be free of the lasting societal effects of our racist history.
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Cole, Nicki Lisa. “The Charleston Shooting and the Problem of White Supremacy.” About Education. About.com, 2015. Web. 05 Oct. 2015.
Ellis, Ralph. “Prosecutor to seek death penalty in Charleston church killings.” CNN. Cable News Network, 03 Sept. 2015. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.
Howard, Jacqueline. “A Sociologist Explains The Charleston Church Shooting And Racism InThe U.S.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 19 June 2015. Web. 05 Oct. 2015.
Jenkins, Jack. “How The Charleston Shooting Is Linked To The Confederate Flag, According To a South Carolinian.” Think Progress. Center for American Progress Action Fund, 19 June 2015. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.
Pierce, Charles P. “Charleston Shooting: Speaking the Unspeakable, Thinking the Unthinkable.” Esquire. Hearst Communications, Inc., 18 June 2015. Web. 05 October 2015.
Sanchez, Ray. “Charleston Church Shooting: Who Is Dylann Roof? – CNN.com.” CNN. Cable News Network, 23 June 2015. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.
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