Charleston, the Confederate flag and racism – the political intersection of ultra-right terrorism

In June 2015, a young gunman Dylann Roof, shot dead nine people of African American descent in the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He was attending a bible study group and prayer service, when he took out an automatic weapon, opening fire, and killing nine persons including the senior pastor and state senator the late Clementa C Pinckney. Roof, the shooter shouted racial slogans, declaring that African Americans were destroying his white kinfolk.

He deliberately spared the life of one person so that she could bear witness to the attack. Roof hoped that the living witness would explain to the wider world his motivations for the shooting. His decision to kill was motivated by his desire to stop black people taking over the country, as he saw it. After his arrest, he stated to police that his intention was to ignite a racial war. The facts of the mass murder are well established.

In the immediate aftermath of the killing, there was an intense debate among politicians, media commentators and the corporate media about whether the mass murder at Charleston constituted an act of domestic terrorism, a hate crime, or both. The governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, in speaking about the atrocity, stated that she cannot and never will understand what motivates someone to enter a holy place of worship and kill.

Well, it is true that the motivations driving the perpetrator in each and every case of murder are complex and multifarious. In the more recent case of the Chattanooga shooting, involving the death of four US marines, there was never any doubt that this act constitutes a case of terrorism, especially given the fact that the shooter’s name is something like Mohammed Yousuf Abdulazeez. In this case, the shooting is immediately categorised and understood as terrorism. However, when a white mass murderer is arrested by police, he is provided with a hamburger meal, and a bullet-proof vest for his protection should he be the target of vigilante violence.

Let us help Governor Haley understand the motivations of Dylann Roof by having a closer look at his picture – on his jacket, he is wearing two flags, one of the previous apartheid South African regime, the other the flag of the white supremacist state of Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was previously known. Indeed, Roof’s own web page, in which he elaborated his melange of white racist and sovereign-citizen-militia ideas as a manifesto, described himself as the ‘last Rhodesian’. Roof never made any secret of his ultra-rightist political motivations.

As Eugene Puryear, author of the article “Charleston Massacre: Yet another terrorist act against Blacks in America” explains it, the reason for the obfuscation of this issue as an expression of ultra-rightist terrorism is clear:

The establishment in capitalist America is fearful of revealing the depth of racist oppression that continues to exist. Particularly in South Carolina, a state run by hard-core Tea Party types with a deep strain of racism that involves quite a bit of Confederate boosterism.

The leaders of South Carolina, then, will be loathe to admit their own complicity in not only the terrorism of the past but its glorification in the here and now.

The Confederate flag – the long reach of the US civil war

South Carolina, one of the states involved in the Confederacy’s secessionist war of the 1860s, has a long history of deep-seated racism. South Carolina’s government, in 1961, raised the Confederate flag atop the state government headquarters as a direct response to the rise of the black American civil rights movement and racial desegregation. South Carolina state authorities resisted desegregation for as long as they could, and the ubiquity of the Confederate, slave-owners flag throughout the southern states is astounding: it can be seen on licence plates, coffee mugs, articles of clothing, and body tattoos. Roof was not unaware of this cultural and historical context.

Indeed, April this year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the US civil war. In the wake of the Charleston shooting, there is renewed interest in the legacy of that war, and the question of racism in American society has taken on political urgency. Roof chose the target that he did, not out of sheer coincidence, but for specific political reasons. Barry Sheppard, long-time socialist and anti-racist activist in the United States penned a thoughtful article called “Racist Charleston massacre has clear political roots”. In it, Sheppard states that:

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.

South Carolina, being one of the defeated states after the civil war, has a long history of terrorist violence against black Americans. In the immediate aftermath of the US civil war, when the slave-owning class and its economic base were smashed, South Carolina witnessed a white supremacist backlash against Reconstruction, with newly-formed racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan launching an underground war of terror to sabotage any attempts at racially integrating the political and economic structures of the state.

Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University and an expert on race relations in the US, wrote that South Carolina authorities resisted the federal government’s Reconstruction programme tooth and nail, and appealed to white resentment against black ‘encroachments’. This generated an interpretation of US civil war and reconstruction history where whites were the aggrieved party, facing a hostile takeover by the formerly subservient African Americans. Roof’s exclamation that ‘you are taking over the country’ has historical resonances that derive from this interpretation of white ‘victimhood’. Southern ‘victimhood’ provides an outlet for the Dylann Roofs of the world to vent their racial hatred wrapped in the mantle of purported injustice.

When elaborating his reasons for committing the crime, Roof provided his own perverse fascination with a mythologised history of the Confederate white-supremacist political platform, drawing from the reservoir of the ‘lost cause of the South’. The slave-owning Confederacy is not just a long-defeated historical artifact, but lives and breathes through its lineage with racist terrorism aimed at the African American community.

The Confederate flag was finally lowered from South Carolina’s state house in July 2015, after a concerted campaign by political and community figures across a wide spectrum of American society. As Monica Moorehead, activist and writer for the Workers World party stated in her article “Who gets credit for removing Confederate flag?”:

Finally. The profoundly offensive, pro-slavery Confederate flag no longer flies high in front of the State House grounds in Columbia, the capitol of South Carolina. It was taken down on July 10, 43 years after it was first hoisted in a ceremony “officially” marking the centennial of the start of the U.S. Civil War.

It is unfortunate that is took the Charleston shooting, a terrorist tragedy, to finally achieve even this limited step, but a forward step it is for race relations in the United States. It required a mass outpouring of public justifiable outrage after the Charleston mass murders for the political establishment to remove this symbol of slavery and racism.

However, consider the following: the US military still has major bases named after Confederate slave-owning military figures. In the Workers World online magazine, Sara Flounders lists the following symbols of US military domination honouring the slave-owning officers:

Fort Hood, Texas, is the largest military base in the U.S., named after a Confederate general, John Bell Hood.

Fort Rucker, Ala., named for Confederate Col. Edmund W. Rucker, is where all of the Army’s aviation training has taken place since 1973.

Fort Bragg, N.C., named to honor Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, is home to the 82nd Airborne Division and Special Operations Command Center.

Fort Benning, Ga., named for Confederate Brig. Gen. Henry L. Benning, is home to the formerly named School of the Americas, which provides military training tactics of torture, assassination and subversion for Latin American military officers.

Fort Gordon, Ga., is home to the U.S. Army Signal Corp and the former base of a military police school. The base is named after Confederate Lt. Gen. John Brown Gordon, head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. Gordon was a vicious segregationist who fought Black Reconstruction following the U.S. Civil War with racist terror.

This issue goes deeper than just names and symbols. The Confederate influence in the US military goes beyond symbolic honours. While after the US civil war, little united North and South, and the Confederate cause was defeated, there was one area where the white separatist cause could find reconciliation and acceptance; the pacification of the indigenous American nations and the emergence of American imperialism.

How and why that happened will be the subject of the next article – part two.

Summing up Part One

The Charleston shooting was a wake-up call not just about the issue of racism in the United States, but also about an equally important trend – the resurgence of ultra-right terrorism. Dylann Roof’s political motivations were the product of a very fertile soil – the continuing presence of not only a white supremacist political platform in American society, but the growth of the ultra-right and its propensity for violence against minority groups. As Brendan McQuade, a visiting assistant professor in international studies at DePaul University states in his essay for Counterpunch online magazine, the reanimation of the Ku Klux Klan, the Sovereign Citizens and patriot militia groups, the John Birch Society and its influence in the ultra-right libertarian Tea Party, point to the need for a serious examination of the visceral racism and white supremacy that is built into the social and economic roots of the capitalist system. If an anti-racist alternative is too limited or weakened, there will be a steady stream of willing recruits, the Dylann Roofs of future generations.


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