Authorities today charged a young white man who they say murdered nine people and wounded three others at a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C. Police say the attack on parishioners, gathered there for a prayer service the previous night, was motivated by racial hatred and that the 21-year-old suspect, Dylann Roof, was unrepentant in braggomg about wanting to start a race war in which blacks would be slaughtered — a goal widely shared among adherents of the white supremacist movement. Whether Mr. Roof was in contact with or received help from such groups is unclear. What is certain, however, is that the killings have shocked the conscience of Charleston as well as people across the nation by exposing the deep racial fault lines that still divide American society.
The outrage in response to this tragedy among both blacks and whites was swift and unequivocal. Charleston's mayor, police chief and other officials all publicly condemned what they described as a cowardly act of senseless violence. Others have called it an instance of white supremacist terrorism of the sort long practiced by southern racists to keep blacks down, including the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which killed four little girls and wounded 22 other people.
Whatever one calls it, the attack on Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was all too familiar to students of America's shameful racial history. The 150-year-old church was once burned to the ground by a white mob infuriated by its role in helping slaves escape to freedom before the Civil War. And only two months ago it helped organize massive street demonstrations to protest the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in neighboring North Charleston. What is truly shocking about such incidents is that they seem to happen as easily in the 21st century as they did in the 19th.
Yet it's no mystery why such killings keep recurring. South Carolina state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, whose district includes the area of Charleston where last week's attack took place, said the shooting "should be a warning to us all that we do have a problem in our society. There's a race problem in our country. There's a gun problem in our country. We need to act on them quickly."
Before that can happen, however, the country needs to face up to its continuing racial dilemma and the enduring legacy of its tortured racial past.
Whatever dark impulse led to these horrible crimes — rage, mental derangement, racial hatred or a tortured sense of personal inadequacy that could only be assuaged by violence — was not an isolated one. That destructive impetus was embedded in the fabric of our society at the nation's founding, and it remains a cancerous growth eating away at the bonds of community that bind us together in common purpose.
When the Rev. Martin Luther King addressed more than 3,000 mourners at the funeral for the victims of the Birmingham church bombing, he implored them not to lose hope despite their sorrow. "This tragic day may cause the white side to come to terms with its conscience," he said. "In spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not become bitter. ... We must not lose faith in our white brothers. Life is hard. At times as hard as crucible steel, but, today, you do not walk alone."
Today, the residents of Charleston, black and white, are in mourning, but they do not walk alone. The nation's heart has gone out to them with a message of hope that the wounds of hatred and violence can be healed and that together we can form a more perfect union. But for that pledge to mean anything we must stop pretending that race is no longer a problem in our country or that its consequences for all of us can be safely ignored.
One can only hope that last week's attack on the church will serve a galvanizing role similar to that played by the Birmingham church bombing more than 50 years ago. That awful tragedy ultimately helped solidify public opinion against the evils of the system of legal segregation and white supremacy that deprived blacks of their most basic rights as American citizens. As we mourn the loss of the Charleston shooting victims, we must not lose sight of the fact that none of us can truly feel safe until we as a country ensure everyone's right to live free from the threat of violent extremism and hate.