Charleston's History of Hellish Violence

Dylann Roof fits into a long tradition of violent racism in South Carolina

The Confederate flag flying in Charleston, South Carolina, where Dylann Roof has confessed to killing nine black churchgoers. Credit: Mladen Antonov/Getty

Though only 21, Dylann Roof has an old soul — that of a 19th-century white supremacist with 21st-century tools.

The alleged shooter who killed nine people Wednesday at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, reportedly told his victims, "You rape our women and you're taking over our country."

Those words marked Roof as an ideological descendant of earlier racists who, after the Civil War, justified their reign of terror with precisely these claims: that supposedly hypersexual black men were always on the prowl to rape white women, and that African-Americans' fights for citizenship and civil rights were not just about equality, but about black domination. In South Carolina — where the shots that started the Civil War were fired, where whites held tenuous and brutal control over black majorities, and where enslaved people helped launch the war by literally stealing themselves and fleeing from bondage — black domination came to be known as "Negro rule."

Dylann Roof may have changed the words ("taking over"), and it may be true that racism has in part succeeded by shape-shifting through the ages. But make no mistake: Roof's contemporary violence has everything to do with the violent vision of men who built modern South Carolina. Roof is neither lone wolf nor innovator. Whatever, if any, connection he has to hate groups, he had hundreds of years of anti-black race talk behind him when he walked into one of America's oldest black places of worship, in what is known as the Holy City (likely for its abundance of churches), and prayed with black congregants before gunning them down.

Like his spiritual ancestors, Roof linked interracial sexuality and political power. For men like Gov. Ben Tillman, who presided over the state's march to legalized segregation in the 1890s, few things stirred more wild anger than the thought of black men and white women in "sexual congress." In an 1891 speech, Tillman vowed that, as the state's top chief executive, he "stood ready…to head a mob to lynch any negro who had assaulted a white woman."

Tillman was not alone. During the 1890s, Charleston's main newspaper, then called The News and Courier, whipped up racial hostility by publishing poorly substantiated articles about supposed "Negro outrages" upon pure and vulnerable white women. Around the country, black men stood accused of various offenses and often trumped-up crimes — disrespect of their white "betters," questioning unfair payment for their work, eyeing a white woman — and they burned in bonfires and hangings attended by masses of white men, women and children. The newspaper ran an editorial in November 1896 saying that black men's "animal sensuality and his lack of will power" caused lynchings. The writer argued that the real victims of lynchings were those who witnessed or participated in this ritualized torture:

"But it's the torturers, not the tortured, who must arouse our most serious concern. After however lingering and painful a death, the negro dies at last, and his troubles are over. But his executioners do not get off so easily. Imagine the state of mind of a man who has kindled a fire under a negro over night [sic]; or of a woman who has poked out his eyes with a red-hot stick…The negro has by far the best of the bargain."

Imagine, indeed.

As we can see from the Charleston massacre, this brand of victim-blaming is still with us today. According to NRA board member Charles Cotton, Rev. Clementa Pinckney – one of Roof's victims and the church's pastor – might have been alive today if he had voted for a conceal-and-carry gun measure during his tenure in the state legislature.

Like Roof's violence, Pinckney's murder by a white supremacist is part of a long, tragic history. During Reconstruction, black politicians and pastors were particular targets of white violence. They had the audacity to "usurp" the power of the white master class, and they had the base —former slaves turned citizens, and their congregations — to turn Old South hierarchies on their heads.

The bottom line is that Roof is upholding the tradition of the premier domestic terrorists of the late-19th century – people like the Democratic Party members and vigilantes who terrorized freed blacks across the state in what some historians call the "Ku Klux Klan wars" of the 1870s and beyond. They intimidated and shot blacks who tried to vote, whipped black Republicans (the party of Lincoln, remember?) and white allies, raped black partisans' wives and daughters, and later gerrymandered political districts to dilute black voting power. The violence sent nearly entire communities of African-Americans, particularly in the upcountry part of the state, to hide in the woods for months on end.

The Redeemers — the white men who wanted things to go back to the way they were when black people were property — assassinated black men who won political office, men like Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

And Dylann Roof hasn't fallen far from that tree.