The mass shooting at a historic Charleston black church Wednesday night may mark the deadliest hate crime in South Carolina history, according to a prominent local historian.
A lone gunman shot and killed nine worshippers at a prayer meeting inside Emanuel AME Church, the first and oldest African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the South. A Facebook photo of the suspect arrested for the attack, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, shows a thin, blond-haired young man wearing symbols of white supremacy on his jacket.
The FBI is working the shooting as a hate crime.
“I don’t think there’s ever been anything like that here,” said historian Jack Bass, a professor emeritus at the College of Charleston. “I think it’s just unprecedented.”
While South Carolina has suffered a long history of racially motivated arson attacks at black churches, some as recently as the late 1990s, the state’s last mass slaying of this scale occurred 139 years ago during the Reconstruction Era, Bass said.
In July 1876, violence erupted in Hamburg, a small town across the Savannah River from Augusta. Following a confrontation between white farmers and the town’s African-American militia, an armed mob of white men laid siege to the community. Five black men were summarily executed.
A hate crime, as defined by Congress, enables the Justice Department to prosecute crimes motivated by the offender’s bias against race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.
South Carolina is one of five states, including Arkansas, Wyoming, Georgia and Michigan, that doesn’t have a hate crime statute on the books, so local authorities are forced to rely on federal authorities to make charges in these cases.
For years, state lawmakers have tried and failed repeatedly to push hate crime legislation through the General Assembly.
Rep. Seth Whipper, D-North Charleston, has tried for more than 15 years to get a bill passed by the Legislature that increased penalties for hate-related offenses. But not enough people rallied behind his effort, Whipper said.
His colleagues and many outside of the Statehouse failed to understand that the bill went beyond protecting members of the black community, Whipper said. The bill, which has not been taken up in subcommittee, also protects from crimes motivated by religion, color, sex, age, national origin and sexual orientation.
“It’s just not a matter of protecting nonwhites,” Whipper said. “It’s a matter of what we say are the values of this country. There’s a responsibility in every community to act like decent people.”
Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, also introduced a bill in 2009 that would have increased penalties for those who committed hate crimes. But it, too failed to advance, he said, because not enough lawmakers felt there was a need for it at the time.
Following Wednesday night’s shooting, Gilliard vowed to reintroduce hate crime legislation. “I don’t care if they call it a knee-jerk reaction,” Gilliard said. “I got to do what I got to do.”
Local law enforcement agencies in South Carolina reported 51 hate crimes in 2013, the most recent data available, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Almost 65 percent of those crimes were motivated by racial bias. That’s data submitted from just 39 of 418 participating law enforcement agencies in South Carolina. The rest reported “zero.”
While the FBI counted fewer than 6,000 hate crimes across the country in 2013, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates more than 200,000 hate crimes are committed each year.
Hate crimes, Cohen notes, are “tremendously under-reported.”
“Hate crimes reverberate through the community because they attack us along traditional fault lines in this country, race in particular,” said Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen. “Black churches have been targets because of their symbolism. Black churches have been a source of activism in our country and they have been targets of those with hate in their hearts and those trying to turn back the clock.”
The number of hate groups in the United States reached historically high levels in 2011, when the law center counted 1,018 active organizations across the country. Today, that number has dipped to 784 as more people have drifted away from formally organized groups into the safety of “anonymous forums on the net,” Cohen said. But the amount of violence these groups perpetrate has held steady.
“There’s really no region of our country that is immune from the plague of hate,” Cohen said, in spite of Charleston’s bloody and painful history as the flash point of the Civil War. “What we have seen driving the hate movement are two main factors: the changing demographics of our country, symbolized by the presence of an African-American in the White House. Second, the decline in our economy, caused by increasing globalization and the financial crisis, (which) create uncertainty and anxiety.”
Wednesday night’s attack also ranks among the deadliest shootings at a house of worship in the United States. The last mass shooting at a religious institution occurred in August 2012, when Army veteran and avowed neo-Nazi Wade Michael Page killed six people at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., before turning his gun on himself.
“I think the publicity around mass shootings is quite extreme in the present day and so I think a lot of shooters are going to think of the most sensational type of event and in a way, the places that are attacked that get the most press are the safest. A movie theater in Colorado. A school in Connecticut,” said Dr. Jonathan Metzl, a psychiatrist at Vanderbilt University who studies mental illness and mass shootings.
“Churches fit that model in that they should be places where people can leave their fear or violence at the door. Churches are sanctuaries, and so disrupting that sense of safety is a another level of the violence that’s done in an act like this.”
Cynthia Roldan contributed to this report. Reach Deanna Pan at 937-5764.