A boyish white supremacist's massacre of nine worshipers at a black Charleston, S.C., church reminds us that, much as we may wish it were not so here in the old Confederacy, William Faulkner was right when he wrote in "Requiem for a Nun": "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
We are bound to that past until the day people rise above the divisions, ignorance and contempt that slavery brought to the shores. Far from the postracial society so widely proclaimed after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, we are only a little closer than when the U.S. Supreme Court called for that transformation 61 years ago. We will know soon enough whether Dylann Roof and the Emanuel A.M.E. Church provided another bridge. I am not optimistic.
For the altar of the mass murder that he considered to be a heroic act of patriotism, Roof chose the church that symbolized the United States' indelible history as the largest slaveholding nation on earth, which for its first three-score years counted a black person as only three-fifths of a human being even as it proclaimed itself the world's beacon of liberty. Emanuel A.M.E., the second oldest black church in the South, was burned in 1822 after a member tried to organize a slave rebellion. He and accomplices were executed and blacks were forbidden thereafter to have churches.
On the day Roof was arraigned in court for the murders, the nation sort of celebrated the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth 1865, when a Union general alighted at Galveston, Texas, and told slaveholders that it was at last down to them and that, yes, even Texans had to free their slaves.
Roof did not hide his motives — he hated black people and hoped to ignite a race war that would put blacks back in their subordinate place in a segregated society. A Facebook photo showed him wearing the flag patches of the old apartheid regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia, and in other photos he brandished the Confederate battle flag, the enduring symbol of the South's great struggle to perpetuate human bondage, which its churches held to be God's plan just as some of them now proclaim it to be God's wish that neither the government nor Christians recognize the mutual love of sexual minorities.
Roof's own South had to abandon apartheid, at least legally, after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board decision in 1954 and the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s. In every community of the South and much of the North we are still struggling with the legacies of slavery and segregation, although most folks in the South concur with a slim majority of the Supreme Court that inequality and injustice are things of the past.
Dylann Roof expected to be admired as a hero and a martyr even as he was prosecuted, and in some quarters he will be, quietly. Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 people in 1995, believed he was the vanguard of the American right, which would rise up against a tyrannical liberal government. Like McVeigh, Roof is demented, but it is not hard to see how the misimpressions developed as he and his pals haunted the bars and strip joints around Charleston. To soak up the message that America is headed to ruin under the leadership of a black man and that great acts are needed to save it, he did not have to link up with the online hate groups or social media that proclaim the tyranny of the black president or the growing menace of blacks and immigrants. You hear it at lunch tables or the workplace and you see it in unsolicited emails and you hear it in the dog whistles of political campaigns. And, if you are in our beloved South, you see it symbolized in the civil venues.
Let it be said that, unlike the church bombings and racial killings during the not-so-distant civil rights era, the South Carolina officials reacted not with mild disapproval, but with outrage and, unlike the Fox network, they called it what it was: a racially motivated mass murder that had to be punished to the fullest extent of the law. (Fox suggested that Roof was carrying out the left's agenda of stifling religious liberty; an NRA leader blamed the dead minister, a state senator, because he did not support a concealed-carry gun bill in the legislature. Our own Mike Huckabee, presidential wannabe, said the deaths were the worshipers' fault because they do not arm themselves when they enter God's house, as he thinks God wants them to do.)
The Confederate battle flag still flies at the Capitol at Columbia, S.C., the cradle of the Confederacy. The state still officially proclaims that it must maintain its reverence for the lost cause of the Confederacy and the soldiers who fought to preserve bondage — or "states' rights," the euphemism that replaced it in our nostalgia. After a few days of straddling, the South Carolina governor and other officials came around to asking the legislature to banish the Confederate flag from the Capitol grounds, and a few Republican presidential candidates said it might not be the perfect symbol for a democracy. Huckabee was not one of them.
Here in Arkansas two months ago, the Republican legislature beat down a bipartisan effort to abandon Gen. Robert E. Lee's birthday as an official holiday shared with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Lee is a symbol of our great lost causes — secession and slavery. It was explained on the legislative floor and in the editorial pages of the statewide newspaper that Lee was a fine general and just a good man, qualities that should be memorialized with an official holiday. If great martial leadership needs enshrining, a more deserving honoree might be Dwight D. Eisenhower, who in the last great war led a nobler cause than slavery — the defeat of tyranny — and was good enough to actually win his war and then lead his country in peace.
Flags and memorial holidays are mere symbols, but beyond the official reproofs there is no evidence that the popular bigotry to which Roof catered is diminished an iota.
For real hope, rather, we have to turn to the relatives of the slain worshipers, who showed up at his arraignment not to shout imprecations at the killer but, one after another, to express their grief but also their forgiveness and to ask mercy for the killer driven by hate.
"I'm a work in progress and I acknowledge that I'm very angry," said Bethane Middleton-Brown, whose sister, a minister, Roof shot point-blank with the .45-caliber Glock model 41 his parents gave him the money to buy for his birthday. "She taught me we are the family that love built. We have no room for hate. We have to forgive."