At the conclusion of the historic voting rights marches in Selma, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. During the address, King analyzed the systemic origins of the racial divide existing between poor whites and Blacks in the American south.
“If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow,” he declared. “And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the Black man. And he ate Jim Crow. And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, their last outpost of psychological oblivion.”
These words, delivered in the midst of peaking racial violence and a massive quest towards desegregation, ring ever true today as Jim Crow’s descendants spring forward to carry on a haunting southern legacy. These words sustain in the wake of last week’s massacre at the historic Emanuel A.M.E Church, where a self-professed white supremacist gunned down nine Black parishioners as they attended a Bible study session in Charleston, S.C. These words linger as details emerge about the 21-year-old shooter, Dylann Roof, a racist zealot who harbored such intense hatred for African Americans that he commenced upon waging a “race war” against those who, in his words, “rape our women” and “take over our country.” For that, he told his victims, “you have to go.”
Anyone with an ounce of common sense will acknowledge that Roof’s deeply ingrained delusions, drenched in the falsehoods of white supremacy and an afflicted legacy of racial southern pride, fall within a wider historical context profoundly embedded within the fabric of the American social structure. The shooter’s very assertion that “our” white heteropatriarchal nation and its foundational principles stand breached by the prospect of African American progress, reflect age old ideologies surrounding the dynamics of race—in this case, most explicitly relating to the era following Emancipation and the epoch known as Jim Crow.
During Reconstruction, many poor whites, stifled by the residuals of a former plantation economy, found themselves excluded by wealthy elites also dwelling in the southern states. Intent on keeping Blacks at the bottom of the hierarchal ladder, while also ensuring that a clear separation existed between the lowest entities in the south, rich whites brainwashed their poor, uneducated, disenfranchised brethren into believing that they were naturally superior to even the most distinguished Black citizens. In return, these poor whites, convinced that a newly liberated people would steal their land, take their jobs and rape their women, launched a violent lynch fest across the southern terrain in an effort to stifle social, political and economic progress, while also protecting the sanctity of white womanhood presumably endangered by emancipated Black male bodies.
Continuing in this legacy throughout the 50s and 60s, their minions emerged from the back woods of the American south to resist desegregation, toting the Confederate flag as a badge of honor, forming White Citizens Councils and committing sadistic and often murderous acts of violence to neutralize the Civil Rights Movement. In the end, these predecessors laid the foundation for the advent of a new millennial terrorist like Dylann Roof, a feeble coward who feared that an evolving America would strip him of the only significant quality he possessed—the virtue of whiteness.
In a sense, these historical points placed against the backdrop of the Charleston shooting may perhaps bring into perspective a very American problem personified through a racist extremist like Dylann Roof. Primarily, while this gunman views himself as an intrinsically supreme being, one look at his unsophisticated, disheveled appearance suggests that in the presence of many modern elites, Roof would be diminished to the rankings of lower social status—very much like his predecessors.
Pair that with the fact that he’s a perpetually unemployed, ninth grade dropout with a criminal background that includes drug possession, and there you have it—an uneducated, unemployed, criminal drug addict who, along the way, was somehow conditioned to believe that he was superior to all African Americans, including a renowned United States Senator and eight other citizens who led productive lives geared towards bettering our society.
Furthermore, in that vein, by analyzing Roof’s deep-seated hatred, we must also acknowledge the fact that these influences aren’t solely rooted in the past.
We must also recognize the right wing media analysts who continuously propagate notions of a “browning” America and its subsequent threat to white culture, white history and white people. We must call out politicians, news anchors and everyday citizens who live in their privileged bubbles, ignoring the dark realities of racial strife still existing here in America because, as they always say , we now live in a “colorblind, post-racial” society. We must identify the dangers in denying the racial motives behind the Charleston attack, because as Conservative presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee recently stated, “God ended racism a long time ago.”
In the end, for anyone questioning the existence of modern American racism, the Charleston shooting should stand as the ultimate reflection of how bigotry and racial hatred remain profusely embedded in our nation’s DNA. There’s no denying that the indoctrination of white supremacy has endured well beyond Emancipation and Jim Crow. In fact, it persistently manifests itself as right wing pundits and politicians continue to plant, water and nurture seeds of hatred deeply internalized by those disillusioned by change in the age of Obama.
Ultimately, the all-American tale of Dylann Roof indisputably validates that racism and white supremacy are very much alive in 2015—whether our “colorblind” society chooses to accept it or not.
Shelby Jefferson is a blossoming journalist, and currently works as a staff reporter for a Michigan based community newspaper. As a radical intellectual, writer, poet and pop culture junkie, she frequently uses her articles to analyze and present a broad spectrum of themes including race and representation in television/music/film/media, contemporary arts and culture, race and gender identity in sports and social justice issues in the United States. She can be reached at [email protected].