The Republican Party became part of the story in the wake of last week’s massacre at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The GOP was inserted into the controversy over the Confederate flag following the news that the gunman was inspired by a white nationalist group that donated to the campaigns of a number of Republican presidential candidates.
On Sunday, mourners gathered at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. to remember the nine congregants killed in what is being described as an act of domestic terrorism. Just days before, on June 17, a white supremacist named Dylann Roof, 21, opened fire on a Bible study group at the historically Black church, reportedly in the hopes of starting a race war. Charleston police have characterized the shooting as a hate crime.
A website containing photos of Roof posing with his firearm and at Confederate historical sites, as well as a 2,444-word manifesto allegedly of the gunman’s racial ideology, has caught the attention of local and federal law enforcement. In the assailant’s manifesto, Roof reportedly credits the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), a white nationalist group, with his radicalization. The organization—which is modeled as a present-day incarnation of the anti-civil rights, pro-segregation White Citizens’ Councils of the 1950s and 1960s— enjoys participation from Republican politicians, and has donated tens of thousands of dollars to presidential candidates.
Earl Holt—the president of the CCC who called Black people “the laziest, stupidest and most criminally-inclined race in the history of the world”— has donated $1,500 to Rick Santorum, $1,750 to Rand Paul and $8,500 to Ted Cruz. In 2012, Holt contributed $2,000 to the campaign of then-GOP presidential aspirant Mitt Romney. A Confederate license plate was attached to Holt’s car.
Meanwhile, Holt’s reported neo-Confederate sentiments have ignited a new debate on the Confederate flag, which first flew on top of the capitol in 1962 in opposition to the civil rights movement. In 2000 it was moved to a memorial on the capitol grounds, and is protected by the 2000 South Carolina Heritage Act, which “stipulates… where certain flags of the Confederacy shall be flown or displayed on the grounds of the State Capitol complex, and which prohibits the removal of these Confederate flags on the State House grounds and the removal, changing or renaming of any local or state monument, marker, memorial, school or street erected or named in honor of the Confederacy or the Civil Rights movement” without a joint resolution, requiring a two-thirds vote of each house of the legislature.
State Rep. Norman “Doug” Brannon, a Republican lawmaker, has introduced a bill to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds. Brannon said the flag is “not just a symbol of hate, it’s actually a symbol of pride in one’s hatred.”
Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel who was among the nine murdered last week, was also a state senator. Two flags atop the state capitol—the U.S. flag and the South Carolina state flag—were lowered to half mast, but the Confederate flag was not.
According to police reports, several days after the shooting, someone spray painted the statement “Black Lives Matter” on a Confederate memorial statue in the city. An inscription on the statue reads: “To the Confederate Defenders of Charleston.” In addition, activists in Philadelphia burned a confederate flag in response to the church shootings, a month after a Black artist from Florida staged a burning of the flag in 11 Southern states.
The port city of Charleston, aside from its role in the Civil War, played a central role in the institution of slavery. According to the International African American Museum, during the Transatlantic slave trade, approximately 40 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to the United States came through Charleston Harbor.
Meanwhile, Emanuel A.M.E. Church—the site of the recent massacre— is of particular significance as the oldest A.M.E. church in the U.S. South, and the oldest Black church south of Baltimore, Maryland. Founded in 1816, the institution has been held as a symbol of Black freedom. One of the founders of Emanuel, Denmark Vesey, was a free Black man and former slave who planned a slave insurrection in 1822. June 17, the day that Dylann Roof opened fire on Emanuel, was the 193rd anniversary of the day the Vesey revolt was to take place. In July 1822, Vesey and five slaves were hanged for their role in plotting the revolt.
The massacre at Emanuel has brought America’s legacy of racial violence and white supremacy to the forefront, issues which the Republican Party have exploited for political gain since the 1960s with their Southern Strategy. And yet, Republican standard bearers and spokespeople are loath to openly discuss racism and the Confederate flag, even in the context of the Charleston church shooting.
For example, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), whose niece once attended school with Roof, and recently announced his candidacy for president said, “I just think he was one of these whacked out kids. I don’t think it’s anything broader than that. It’s about a young man who is obviously twisted.”
He then added, “No one at home [in South Carolina] believes this represents us. We don’t want to be judged by him.”
Presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told NBC’s Meet The Press that his competitors should not discuss the Confederate flag controversy. “I still think it’s not an issue for a person running for president,” Huckabee said. “Everyone’s being baited with this question as if somehow that has anything to do whatsoever with running for president.”
Further, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said, “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes,” but later joined Mitt Romney in calling for a removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol.