Nine members of my community were murdered by someone who joined them for Bible study. The question everyone asked was “Why?”
Just as African American churches were burned and ministers were murdered in my childhood (often by other professing Protestants), my parents’ generation asked the same question we now ask:
What convinces people that an entire ethnic group can be so in conflict with their best interest that in their minds, everyone from that race becomes a threat or enemy, potentially worthy of death? How can one prevent violence that comes from a place of fear more so than a place of hate?
“I have to do it. You are raping our women and taking over our country.”
That was the young accused shooter’s reputed explanation to his victims for his vicious attack. When I heard the words, “You are taking over our country,” immediately I heard echoing in my ears the urgent call of numerous politicians. In all of his formative years, he would have been hearing their rallying call — “Let’s take our country back!”
Of course, coming of age in the 1960s, I knew exactly what those code words meant, but even young people with little historical knowledge questioned who was this “they” that had “their” country when “they” were already in control of the Congress and many statehouses.
It was disconcerting to hear again the main points found in the majority of the 1950s and 1960s propaganda aimed against integration and African Americans repeated in 2015 — if you don’t stop them, they will rape your women and they want to take over the country.
As children, our older Southern-born leaders had to participate in discrimination against all African Americans because it was what the Jim Crow laws required. These laws required African Americans to have limited access to jobs, voting, housing and education, but these laws also planted three seeds in the subconscious minds of many white male children who are now of leadership age:
First, an expectation that they shouldn’t have to compete for available power, jobs, and wealth; second, the concept of the “lessness” of African Americans; and third, since you previously didn’t have to compete, anything another ethnic group earned or received was somehow taking something that rightly belonged to you.
Our Jim Crow childhood shaped us for good or bad, and we, the current political, spiritual, and media leaders, are sowing into succeeding generations what was sown into us. We set the tone for others to follow.
Our national leadership set the tone for whether the newly elected African American president should be given the respect due to the office.
Our Charleston leadership set the tone for how the community and the press dealt with the massacre.
Our South Carolina leadership helped set the tone for the extreme views against African Americans.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Dylann Roof’s online manifesto credited the Council of Conservative Citizens’ website for shifting his views against African Americans. The website sought to prove African Americans to be a great menace to society. A member of the Dorchester County GOP Executive Committee was a leader in that organization.
What is most troubling is that the people creating this climate of extreme fear, dislike and disrespect of certain ethnic groups are mostly mainstream people and easily identifiable. They can be found every day on TV talk shows that they call news, on talk radio and on the Internet. They say things that are shaped in innuendo and often blatantly untrue but easy to disprove.
They say, “Oh, it’s just talk,” but those of us from the last Jim Crow generation recognize it as the same talk that moved people to murder our relatives or run them out of town.
Many other young impressionable minds are being sown with seeds of fear that when full grown will produce hate, but just as leaders set the tone, they can also change the tone for this next generation.
Or maybe not.
Maybe they’ve bought the hype, too, and maybe deep down in their hearts they share the fear.
Cleo Scott Brown is co-author of “Witness to the Truth,” published by the University of South Carolina Press. She lives in Goose Creek.