Barry Sheppard: Racist Charleston massacre has clear political roots

A Black Lives Matter protest last August in New York. Photo by Edward Leavy.

Read more by Barry Sheppard HERE.

By Barry Sheppard

June 20, 2015 -- Green Left Weekly, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal --  The mass murder of nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white racist has been widely denounced. But to understand this hate crime – a terrorist attack – it has to be put into a broader political context.

The killer, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, deliberately spared the life of one woman, telling her he wanted her to report on what he had done. He told her, among other things, that he decided to kill Black people because they “are taking over the country”.

In short, his motives were blatantly political. And the killings occur in the political context of the rise of the new Black Lives Matter movement with its mass mobilisations since Ferguson last August, and the racist counter-movement spearheaded by the police in reaction to it.

Roof’s actions should be seen as part of that broader racist reaction - and inspired by it, even if his mass murder is an extreme example.

We may see more violent racist actions in opposition to the new Black movement, as we saw in the 1960s with murders, bombings and arsons against the civil rights and Black liberation movements of that time.

Emanuel African Methodist Church

Roof's choice of the Emanuel African Methodist Church as the scene of his terrorist attack was also political. It is one of the oldest Black churches in the South, having been established as a refuge for slaves in the early 1800s. Ever since, it has played an important role in the fight for Black rights, including up to the present.

One of the founders of the church was a former slave, Denmark Vesey, who had been able to buy his freedom from his owner. Vesey was the main leader of a planned armed slave revolt in 1822.

The conspiracy was hatched in the church, where Blacks were able to meet out of the sight of whites, but was betrayed. As a result, 130 Blacks were rounded up, charged and convicted of various crimes.

Thirty six, including Vesey, were hanged. Four whites were arrested and jailed for supporting the planned rebellion. The church was burned down, but the congregation survived and the church later rebuilt.

The rebuilt church has a shrine dedicated to Vesey. During the Civil War, one of the first Black regiments in the Union army to fight the slavocracy was named for him.

All this history is well known in Charleston. The church, affectionately known as the “Mother Church” among Blacks, is a symbol for the Black struggle – supported by anti-racist whites as well as Blacks, and hated by racist whites.

Roof entered the church ostensibly to join a bible study class (whites are welcomed in the church). A survivor reports that he asked to have his central target – senior pastor and state Senator Clementa Pinckney - pointed out to him. Roof then sat down next to Pinckney.

Pinckney was well known in Charleston as an advocate for the Black community. He was also an elected member of the South Carolina state legislature. Roof singled him out for political assassination because of his record.

When Black man Walter Scott was shot dead by police in nearby North Charleston on April, Pinckney and the Emanuel A.M.E. church helped organise Black Lives Matter protests. Pinckney got the state legislature to pass a law requiring cops to wear body cameras.

Scott, who was unarmed, was shot in the back by a police officer as he tried to flee. This was all caught on video by a bystander, so the cops couldn’t cover it up, but they tried. The video was so damning that the cop has been charged with murder, unlike in so many of the other cases of Black people killed by police.

The fact that charges were brought at all infuriated racists - who were especially angry at Pinckney.

Racist reaction

The racists’ paranoia about Blacks “taking over the country” was also demonstrated in another recent case in Cleveland, Ohio. This stemmed from an earlier police shooting in November, 2012.

In that incident, two unarmed Blacks people, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, led police on a high speed chase after police tried to stop Russell for a wrong turn.

Sixty police cars joined the chase, which ended in a hail of 137 shots, killing both. Officer Michael Brelo fired 49 of those bullets. When other cops stopped firing, Brelo jumped up on the hood of the stopped car, and fired 15 bullets through the windshield at the pair.

A report from the Ohio attorney-general called the chase and the shooting “a systematic failure” of the Cleveland police. More than 60 cops were suspended, but Brelo was the only one criminally charged.

His trial was held before a judge, who made public his finding of “not guilty” on May 26, and there were mass protests that night.

After this ridiculous verdict, one of Brelo’s lawyers told the press that “We stood to-to-toe with an oppressive government” and won.

Where do the beliefs of the racist far-right that they are the victims of an “oppressive government” or that “Blacks are taking over the country” come from?

Whites in the defeated South certainly felt this way after the 19th century civil war, but such beliefs came to the fore again after the gains won by the civil rights movement in overturning the system of legal segregation in the Jim Crow South in the 1960s, as well as other gains won by the Black liberation movement.

These struggles forced the federal government to reluctantly codify these victories - causing racist whites to blame the government itself.

As a result of these victories, more Blacks have been elected to office, such as Pinckney. A Black man was even elected president, fuelling the paranoia that “They’re taking over!”

This is at the heart of the mantra of the right wing against “big government”. They are not against the bloated “big military”, but against government programs they see as aiding Blacks and the most-exploited workers generally.

With the rise of the Blacks Lives Matter movement, the federal government has conducted investigations into many police departments, and found indeed gross racism and violence against Blacks, Latinos and others.

One such reports involved the Cleveland police, hence the the pride of the police officer's lawyer to have beaten the “oppressive government”.


The whole history of capitalism in the United States has been intertwined with the oppression and economic exploitation of Blacks, from the institution of Black slavery up through the institutionalized national oppression of Blacks today.

Victories have been won, from the Civil War itself, to the defeat of Jim Crow. But as Black Lives Matter has demonstrated, de facto segregation and oppression still exist.

This is so engrained that even well-meaning people talk about “the Black community” without even questioning why there is such a category at all, accepting segregation as almost a natural phenomenon.

Racism, as an idea, is not the cause of the oppression and exploitation of Blacks, with the result that it is not possible to simply solve problem by changing people's minds. Rather than the cause, racists ideas are the result of Black oppression – and its ideological justification.

Racism is a useful tool for the capitalist ruling class to divide and weaken the working class.

The government maintains the system of national oppression evident in the police, courts and jails enforcement of it, but at the same time it pretends the US is no longer a racist society. The result is apparently contradictory government stances.

It is this system that spawns the racism that grips the minds of the Dylann Roofs of this world.

[Barry Sheppard was a central leader of the US Young Socialist Alliance and Socialist Workers Party during the years 1960-1988.]