Fifty-two years ago, white supremacists used dynamite to bomb the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and killed four little girls.
Last night, a white supremacist walked into Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine people dead.
Set aside the mass-shooting aspect of it, because we’ve proven time again again that we as a nation don’t care. Aurora, Sandy Hook, the Gabby Giffords shooting in Arizona – somebody said that this was the fourteenth time Barack Obama has had to address a mass-shooting incident in his presidency. Mass shootings are merely the regular dues we pay to appease the people who want to need the guns, and we as a nation have decided we’re cool with that, apparently, or too chickenshit to change it. So set that aside.
This was a 21-year-old white male (born 1994), wearing the flags of Rhodesia (which became Zimbabwe in 1980) and apartheid South Africa (which released Nelson Mandela and started dismantling legal apartheid in 1990). This little bastard has never known a world with minority-white governance in African countries. He’s never lived in a world with de jure segregation, no separate water fountains or back of the bus. Nothing about the Civil Rights Movement or Jim Crow is remotely living memory for him.
What is living memory for him is a world in which every Democratic President has been presented as the illegitimate head of a tyrannical power out to take the guns and empower The Other at white expense. Where all criminals are actually super-powered sub-humans only kept in check by allowing unlimited power to local police – unlimited power of the same type which they accuse the Feds of mounting against them. A world with a steady drumbeat from cable news and talk radio and the Internet, pounding the same message over and over and over: they’re coming to get you, white man, live in fear. Be afraid. Be always afraid.
And, of course, he has parents. Maybe they grew up in living memory of these things. Maybe not. They could easily be my age, born a scant few years after blood on the streets in Kelly Ingram Park and the Montgomery bus terminal and the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Maybe it’s only living memory for their parents. I had parents too. One was bombed out of her high school by segregationists in 1958. The other was able to watch from a Birmingham office window as fire hoses rolled black children down the street. I’m under no illusion about the kind of people my parents might have grown up as, what they believed, what they might still believe. But I do know this: at a very young age, maybe four or five or six years old, they went out of their way to make sure I knew that those old ways and those old beliefs were wrong.
I don’t know if anyone ever did that for the mop-haired white-trash punk-ass thug that was taken into custody this morning. In a state where the battle flag of the Confederacy still flies over the state capital in 2015, I sincerely doubt it. Someone taught him, though. Maybe not his parents, whose piss-poor parenting job sullies the good name of piss, but someone told him that “the blacks” were taking over and coming to get him and raping their women and basically imparting to him four hundred years of racist fear and hatred. And he went into a church – and not just any church, but a black church, founded by an ex-slave who led a rebellion for his people, and don’t think that church was picked by accident – and in this church, at Wednesday night Bible study, he took nine lives. Nine people dead because of an evil doctrine. Nine people dead because of the wickedness that comes from deciding that one human being can buy and sell the life of another. Nine souls lost to us because of a lie.
And now we have to consider the possibility that it may not be enough to contain and wait. It may not be enough to ride out the dying of the Old Ones and let demographics and generational change do the job. It’s not going to be enough to let the hateful fire burn itself out as long as there’s someone willing to feed it fuel. And it’s not going to be enough to let the government do it, not when we’ve sat idly by and let a black President be painted as an evil socialist Muslim dictator and the federal government of “we the people” be tarred as an occupying army of tyranny.
We did this, white people. We built this inferno. We shook hands with the devil and decided we could compromise with sin, and we let the fundamental law of our country reduce a black man to three-fifths of a person. We let rebel slaveholding states rewrite history to glorify themselves and whitewash their crimes. And every time we grappled with the Confederate enemy, we hastened to let them off the hook. And we stopped applying the medicine before the infection was burned out. It’s on us. We let this happen. Our mistake. Our fuck-up. Our problem to solve.
What are we prepared to do?