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From the 16th St. Baptist Church to Emanuel AME: Two Eras, One Mindset

Two seperate tragedies in which Black churchgoers were killed reveal a parallel mindset that is as old as the US.

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The past haunts us. It comes back to us in the form of rhetoric, symbols and physical violence. Ideas from the past continue to draw new blood, continuously scarring the face of this country through untimely Black mortality.

In 2015, when a Black church is viciously attacked, we immediately remember the generations before this one and the most famous of attacked Black sanctuaries: the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four Black girls were killed by a bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan. The bombing that took place that Sunday morning of September 15, 1963, served as a catalyst for the Civil Rights movement and showed the ruthlessness of white supremacist violence.

The tragedy of the 16th Street Church bombing is immortalized in textbooks, documentaries and the hearts of all who struggle to make sense of that fateful day. Now we must also struggle to make sense of the massacre committed against Black churchgoers by the white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The bullets of this 21-year-old shooter have further exposed the myth of generational racism or a post-racial generation.

Evidence has shown that this generation is just as capable of being racist as the prior generation. Data comparisons to previous generations state: “When it comes to explicit prejudice against blacks, non-Hispanic white millennials are not much different than whites belonging to Generation X (born 1965-1980) or Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964). “Furthermore, five measures of racial prejudices from the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) revealed:

Baby Boomers stick out as the more revolutionary generation, at least compared to the Silent Generation that immediately preceded it (and was born before 1946). Boomers are between 8 and 17 points less apt than the Silent Generation to express openly prejudiced views toward blacks, amounting to the greatest shift from one generation to the next. Xers are less prejudiced than Boomers on just one of five measures, interracial marriage.

Despite these realities, many continue to embrace the mythology that racism is on the decline within the millennial generation. Recently, rapper A$AP Ferg highlighted this viewpoint when he declared racism dead among this generation and designated it as the nature of “old people.” The rapper also reinforced that intermarriage was a sign of racism’s decline by saying: “We don’t know racism. We all like having – like my little brother had white girlfriends. And that’s regular.”

Ironically, the month before A$AP Ferg made that statement, two young white women had been sentenced in the racist murder of James Craig Anderson, which had captured national attention in 2011. Sarah Graves, 22, and Shelbie Richards, 21, were part of a 2011 expedition to “fuck up some niggers,”which ended in Anderson’s brutal murder. They were two in a group of white teenagers who beat Anderson while yelling “white power” and then eventually ran him over with a truck.

Events like these show how naïve it is to think that attitudes that were fundamental in crafting a nation will simply die out with older generations. Young people have actively taken part in racist acts in the past, and they continue to do so today.

The Klan member Charles Cagle was only a year older than Dylann Roof when he was arrested in connection with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Alabama. Truthout spoke this week with Cagle’s daughter Tammie Fields about her memories of her father and her thoughts on what might have led him to attack the Black churchgoers.

Fields spoke in depth about how her father had sought to instill hate in her. She spoke of not being allowed to have Black friends and of her father’s disdain for Black people. She recalled a childhood memory of her father’s reaction to her homework that mentioned a Black person. “He said when you read this, you read this ‘Black nigger.’ You don’t read this ‘Black. ‘We don’t call them ‘Black person.’ We call them what they are.”

Despite instances like this, she talked about never understanding her father’s hatred, arguing that he was not raised in a racist home (a contention eerily similar to the first line of Dylann Roof’s manifesto: “I was not raised in a racist home or environment”). Fields said her father’s hatred emerged when he connected with Robert Chambliss, another Klan member involved in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Cagle “was in the KKK; he was 22 years old; and he just idolized him,” she said.

She described feeling horrible when she saw the news of Charleston. “How can there be anything but decline when we don’t raise our children to respect, and to love and to accept each other?” she said. “So many families are being raised like I was, you know, to hate. In my case I didn’t accept that hate, I didn’t understand it … there’s a lot that don’t, but at the same time there’s a lot that do accept what their parents are teaching them.” Fields added that she would encourage people who wish to fight toxic racist mindsets to be disciples of Christ and not hate anyone.

The sister of Denise McNair, who was killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, made a similar call for peace and forgiveness. She spoke about how “human beings are sinful and flawed, and all we can do is continue to pray to God.”These two women on two opposite ends of a historic tragedy both drew a conclusion that their faith would be their pillar of hope for change.

Some people are not feeling so optimistic.

In a recent Washington Post article, American history professor Stacey Patton highlighted her understanding of Christian forgiveness while also critiquing the racial nature of absolution. She wrote:

When black forgiveness is the means for white atonement, it enables white denial about the harms that racist violence creates. When black redemption of white America is prioritized over justice and accountability, there is no chance of truth and reconciliation. It trivializes real black suffering, grief and the heavy lifting required for any possibility of societal progress.

Often requests from officials for the restoration of “calm” and forgiveness can feel imbued with a subliminal desire to quell any possible rebellion or further protests. Anger and discontent can be of use. Forgiveness, while admirable in many horrific instances, has not always been a necessary ingredient in the recipe for progress.

The night that Dylann Roof massacred nine Black churchgoers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, they were going over Mark 4, verses 16 to 20 – the “Parable of the Sower.” In the preamble to those verses, Jesus says, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” The verses depict those who have been given the word of God and what happens to those who don’t value it.

Just as the followers of Christ are invited by the Book of Mark to choose what to do (or not do) with the word of God, the United States has to choose what to do with the tragedy in Charleston. Taking down symbols of old like the Confederate flag, though important, is not enough to change the hatred that lies at the heart of this country.

In the “Parable of the Sower,” Jesus describes a farmer who scatters seeds on rocky soil, on a busy path, among thorns and on good soil. In only one of these places will the seeds grow.

I believe that those types of seeds – the seeds that will grow – may well have been planted in the hearts of many of the people who are now looking on aghast. However, we must remember that Black blood is what has watered the soil.

It’s a shame that it takes a massacre to make a nation stop and think.