Today state offices in South Carolina are closed in recognition of Confederate Memorial Day. The day comes just weeks before the anniversary of Dylann Roof’s murder of nine African-Americans during a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015.
It’s a state holiday that Dylann Roof would approve. I don’t say this lightly or flippantly. Roof embraced a memory of the war steeped in the Lost Cause and white supremacy.
After photos like the one above surfaced, then Republican governor, Nikki Haley, initially attempted to defend the neo-Confederate community by suggesting that Roof had “hijacked” the meaning of the Confederate flag from people who rightly viewed it as a symbol of “service, and sacrifice, and heritage.”
This is absolute nonsense.
What Haley and others were not prepared to admit was that Roof was a student of the history and memory of the Civil War and Reconstruction. He had absorbed its lessons and shaped his view of race relations.
Roof maintained that white women needed to be protected from predatory Black men—a view that justified slavery, the end of Reconstruction, and which propelled generations of white Americans to defend a Jim Crow culture and legalized segregation. Roof admitted that he hoped his actions would spark a race war.
In the months leading up to the murders, Roof visited a number of historic sites, including Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island near Charleston. The site overlooks Charelston Harbor and Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired in April 1861. Roughly 40% of enslaved Africans forced to North America came through Sullivan’s Island. Roof sketched “14-88,” a neo-Nazi slogan on the beach and had his photograph taken in front of a marker highlighting the history of slavery on the island.
Roof also visited the site of Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens, which bills itself as a home that, “symbolizes southern heritage and will take root in your memory for many years to come.”
In Greenville, Roof visited the Museum and Library of Confederate History—a museum steeped in Lost Cause history. In the state capital of Columbia, Roof stopped to honor Confederate soldiers buried at Elmwood Cemetery.
Then there is the church where the murders were committed. The choice to carry out this heinous act at Mother Emmanuel was no accident. The historic church, founded in 1817, was the home of Denmark Vesey, who plotted a slave insurrection in 1822. The church has been at the center of the African-American community in Charleston throughout and played key roles during Reconstruction and the civil rights movement.
The places that Roof visited reinforced an understanding of the war and Reconstruction as a necessary and even gallant attempt to defend white supremacy and the peaceful race relations that the institution of slavery supposedly guaranteed.
Roof didn’t conjure this interpretation out of thin air. This interpretation of the past has long been baked into the cultural and political landscape of South Carolina.
Thankfully, this is beginning to change, but in this case, not fast enough.
South Carolina was right to remove the Confederate flag from the state house grounds in July 2015, but the same justification holds for ending this ridiculous state holiday that does nothing more than insult the memory of the nine men and women murdered by Dylann Roof.
Apparently, memory in South Carolina is short these days, so here is a reminder of who we lost:
Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd (54) – Bible study member and manager for the Charleston County Public Library system; sister of politician and former state senator Malcolm Graham.
Susie Jackson (87) – a Bible study and church choir member.
Ethel Lee Lance (70) – the church’s sexton.
Depayne Middleton-Doctor (49) – a pastor who was also employed as a school administrator and admissions coordinator at Southern Wesleyan University.
Clementa C. Pinckney (41) – the church’s pastor and a South Carolina state senator.
Tywanza Sanders (26) – a Bible study member; grandnephew of victim Susie Jackson.
Daniel Simmons (74) – a pastor who also served at Greater Zion AME Church in Awendaw.
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton (45) – a pastor; also a speech therapist and track coach at Goose Creek High School; mother of MLB prospect Chris Singleton.
Myra Thompson (59) – a Bible study teacher.
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"Roof maintained that white women needed to be protected from predatory Black men". I heard this argument throughout my youth, along with dire warnings about "miscegenation".
Finally I started to wonder about the green eyes, freckles and wavy hair of a number of African Americans. Roof and his predecessors are plainly fine with white men raping enslaved African American women, it's only voluntary "miscegenation" they object to.
With regard to memorializing "our heritage", as supporters of the Confederate flag and other monuments claim to be doing, it is worth noting that the population of South Carolina in 1860 was 57% enslaved people and 43% free white people. The unspoken antecedent to the "our" in "our heritage" is white people, not all or even the majority of South Carolinians during the Civil War.