By Clarence Page
Tribune Content Agency
Witnesses say that the white gunman who killed nine people at Charleston's historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was quite vocal about his motives: He wanted to kill black people.
Quoting a survivor of the horror, Sylvia Johnson, whose cousin Rev. Clementa Pinckney was one of three ministers killed in the church, said the shooter muttered, "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go."
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Facebook photos and other evidence suggests that Dylann Roof, 21, who has confessed to the killings, has a keen interest in white supremacy organizations and "Southern heritage" movements.
As a history buff, I hate to see haters give "Southern heritage" a bad name. Trouble is, some Southern heritage fans don't want to accept that the "War of Northern Aggression," as some call it, ended 150 years ago.
Yet even before Roof's name was announced to the world, the tragedy at Emanuel AME church immediately raised three disturbing questions in my head. They were the same three questions that came to my mind after similar tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, at the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and at Columbine High School in Colorado.
Who let this gunman get his hands on a deadly weapon?
How did he slip through our mental health services net?
Is he part of a larger terror conspiracy or is he a lone wolf?
All of which leads to the larger question for our political leaders: What are you going to do about it?
President Barack Obama looked uncommonly and wearily depressed by this tragedy. That was partly because he and first lady Michelle Obama were personally acquainted with the church and its pastor. So were Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden. The young baritone-voiced Rev. Pinckney, 41, who also was a Democratic state senator, had made "Mother Emanuel" a go-to landmark for political visitors seeking to connect with Charleston's black communities.
Did the accused shooter know the historical importance of this church? Mother Emanuel is the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore and a major symbol of black resistance. It also has been an important platform for the Rev. Martin Luther King and other leaders, even in the slavery era.
One of its earliest members was Denmark Vesey, a free black carpenter who plotted an uprising that could have involved thousands in 1822, had it not been compromised by two slave informants. Almost two centuries later, a statue commemorates Vesey in a park in Charleston.
Was it only coincidental that the attack on the church came on June 17, one day after the date in 1822 that Vesey planned for his uprising? Was the gunman aware of that history?
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center — which tracks racial hate crimes — described the attack to the Los Angeles Times as a "hate crime by someone who feels threatened by our country's changing demographics and the increasing prominence of African Americans in public life." Indeed some people hate you when you don't do well enough —and they hate you even more when they think you're doing too well.
You could hear the weariness in PObama's voice as he lamented how, "once again innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun."
But, alas, unlike those earlier mass killings, he stopped short of calling for action. "At some point," he suggested, we as a country will have to reckon with our grim reality.
But for now, this president seemed to be throwing in the towel. Sensible and popular reforms such as expanding background checks and crackdowns on unscrupulous gun dealers would not stop every crime but they're still worth a try. I wonder how many more needless deaths it will take before the rest of us say, "Enough!"
Reach Clarence Page at email@example.com.