Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1463: Symbols are powerful

  Symbols are powerful. On Wednesday night, June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof drove 120 miles to Charleston, South Carolina. He entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where African Americans were participating in weekly Bible studies. He shot down nine human beings in cold blood, reloading his .45 caliber Glock handgun five times. I grieve for each life lost, each suffering family, each community in mourning, and each person weighed down by this terrible tragedy. But we cannot lose sight of the powerful role symbols played in these hate-filled acts of terrorism. Symbols are powerful.

  Why would a 21-year-old white man drive a 120 miles to this particular church? Why would he shoot so many Black people, including five ministers and six women, in cold blood? Why not a church in Columbia, S.C. where he lived? The answers are embedded in the symbols that influenced his life. Symbols are powerful.

  Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was created in 1791. It is the oldest Black church in the South. In 1822, it was burned down after a slave revolt led by Rev. Denmark Vesey, one of the founders of the church. Thirty-five African Americans were executed to send a symbolic message of what happens to Black people who resist slavery. Symbols are powerful.

  Emanuel AME was rebuilt. However the State of South Carolina outlawed all Black churches in 1835 because they were perceived as symbols of resistance to slavery. Emanuel AME went underground and continued to meet secretly for 30 years. After the Civil War ended in 1865, the church was reorganized. Symbols are powerful.

  During the Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other well-known civil rights leaders spoke on resisting oppression from the pulpit of Emanuel AME Church. The church has continued to be a powerful symbol of resistance to racial oppression right up to this day. Symbols are powerful.

  June 17, the same date the Denmark Vesey-led revolt was crushed, is the same date Dylann Roof chose some 193 years later to drive 120 miles to Charleston, the center of slave trading in the Old South. He went to Emanuel AME Church, the same church, and cold bloodily murdered nine Black human beings, five who were ministers and six who were women. Symbols are powerful.

  The terrorist allowed one person to live so she could tell how he coldly shot down these nine human beings: Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, the pastor of the Emanuel AME and a member of the South Carolina Senate; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, a minister and mother of four children; Cynthia Hurd, 54, a librarian; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lee Lance 70, a sexton at the church; Tywanza Sanders, 26, a recent graduate of Allen University; Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., 74, a pastor from another Charleston church; Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a minister and mother of three who coached track and field at a local high school; and Rev. Myra Thompson, 59, a pastor.

  Roof said that he had to kill these Black folks in this place, at this time in this way because, “You rape our women and you are taking over our country and you have to go.” Roof was sending a symbolic message of terror. One South Carolina leader said, “If we Black people are not safe in our churches, where are we safe?” Roof was sending the message that Black people are not safe anywhere. Symbols are powerful.

  The power of symbols did not just manifest itself in relationship to Black symbols such as the place of the killings, the date of the killings and the Black ministers killed, but also in the symbols he loved. The terrorist had flag symbols on a jacket that represented brutal regimes that imposed Apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia. He had pictures of him with the Confederate flag and other symbols from his childhood. Roof understood the power of symbols and had researched Emanuel AME Church. He used certain symbols to empower himself, and he tried to destroy symbols that empowered others. Symbols are powerful.

  At the bottom of Roof’s murderous rage lies the ever present white supremacy: the belief that White people are superior to Black people; that Black people have a lower station in life; that Black people must be forced into this lower station. All the symbols that empowered him were of White people oppressing Black people. All the symbols he tried to destroy were of Black people resisting white oppression. Symbols are powerful.

  We must understand the continuing power of the belief in white supremacy. We must understand the power of its symbols, and we must do everything possible to limit that power. If we fail, we will continue to pay a high price with our very lives.

Epilogue – We do not really understand the power of symbols. Therefore, we allow symbols of hate to flourish. We must challenge such symbols of hate in peaceful but constructive ways. It’s the loving thing to do.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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