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The AME Church’s long struggle to overcome

The tragic shooting in Charleston resonates with the history of black spiritual empowerment

June 18, 2015 4:15PM ET

When I heard of the tragic shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, I was saddened but not surprised. The massacre is only the latest in a long history of racist violence against a church that stands for the empowerment of black worshippers.

The black church has a complicated history in America. It has been a central site for the organization of black movements for freedom and civil rights and has symbolized a growing black independence in America. But it has too often been seen as a threat to white supremacy. From colonial times to the present, there have been those who have used the sites of black churches to express their racial angst and hatred. In early America, cross burnings, lynchings and the outright destruction of black churches have often followed abolition meetings and slave rebellions, and random acts of violence done at the whim of a white majority too often have also taken place. Such acts of hatred against the black church have continued into modern times. Recall that in 1998, after the horrific dragging death of James Byrd Jr. behind a pickup truck in Jasper, Texas, his remains were left outside a black church. 

The AME Church was born, in fact, from a similar act of racist violence against peaceful black worshippers. In 1787 at Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, black members of the interracial congregation were inadvertently praying in the white section of the segregated church, which was under construction at the time. The black section of the church had been moved to another area, and the black members were unaware of the change. Instead of allowing the black members to finish praying and then moving to the black section, the white ushers forced them from their knees and physically began to move them to the black section. Two of the members who experienced the assault, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, went on to found the first AME Church in 1816 in Philadelphia.

Not accidentally, the AME Chuch’s assertion of black freedom of assembly and worship coincided with the origins of black freedom of the press. Even before the official founding of the church, as early as 1794, members of the nascent congregation, including Jones and Allen, worked to help Philadelphians during the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. However, the white press took the opportunity to disparage African-Americans and the AME Church. Matthew Carey, a well-known printer, claimed in a circulated pamphlet that African-Americans took advantage of the outbreak by burglarizing the homes of white people who had left the stricken city. In the absence of any countervoice by the American media, Jones and Allen published “A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia.” Setting the tone for subsequent African-American authors, Jones and Allen felt it was critical to correct the public record as quickly as possible to avert further fallout from the slanderous assertion. Not only did they challenge Carey’s characterization, but they also described the ways black people, at risk to their own health, helped a substantial number of white citizens during the crisis.

Yesterday’s shooting is yet another unprovoked act of violence perpetrated by white Americans against African-Americans and their sites of religious worship.

The AME Church in South Carolina shares this history of white violence and hostility toward black independence and religious life. In 1800, despite the First Amendment’s commitment to freedom of assembly and religion, the South Carolina legislature passed one of the many of the laws that made it illegal for African-Americans to gather for religious purposes before dawn or after sunset. Magistrates could break up these meetings at will. Many white people in early America worried that religion empowered African-Americans and could lead, without proper supervision, to disobedience or outright resistance and rebellion. In some areas of South Carolina, black Methodists outnumbered white Methodists 10 to 1. The growing independence of AME churches was often curtailed when concerns about their activities arose and white Methodists took back the privileges they had allowed, such as meeting in their own quarterly conferences, handling their own finances and exercising control of their memberships.

When a dispute over burial grounds in the cemetery arose, black members withdrew from those interracial churches to found their own communities and to worship in the manner that they thought best. In 1818 they founded an independent congregation called the African Church of Charleston. 

This symbol of black independence was quickly followed by the harassment of black members, arrests and the closing of the church in 1821. Denmark Vesey, one of the members of the church, would not take the matter lying down. Along with several other carefully selected participants, he planned in 1822 to take the city of Charleston’s arsenal, kill the governor, set fire to the city and kill every white person that they encountered. However, this assault, planned for July 14 — Bastille Day, which was associated with the French Revolution’s abolishment of slavery in Haiti — was betrayed on June 14 by slaves who knew of the plot. Although they did not carry out a rebellion, even planning a slave revolt was punishable by death. Vesey and over 30 other followers were hanged, and the city demolished the church. 

Given the tight restrictions on black movement and religious life in particular after the Vesey rebellion, the members of the church had to meet secretly and out of the sight of white people. They risked arrest and even their lives to worship in the way that they saw fit. It was not until the end of the Civil War in 1865 that the church was formally reorganized as Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“Mother Emanuel” remained a symbol of black freedom and religious expression through the civil rights era. Martin Luther King Jr. and Roy Wilkins led rallies there in 1962, as did Coretta Scott King for striking hospital workers in 1969. Its pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was a state senator and committed civil rights leader. One of the nine victims of the shooting, he embodied the spiritual and political significance of the church and its history.

Without question, the assault, allegedly by 21-year-old Dylann Roof, on the prayer meeting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is a tragic act of violence whose origins will be investigated in the coming days. What history makes clear is that it is yet another in a series of unprovoked acts of violence perpetrated by white Americans against African-Americans and their sites of religious worship.

Julius H. Bailey, Ph.D., is a professor of religious studies at the University of Redlands. His research interests include 19 century African-American religious history and new religious movements. He is the author of “Race Patriotism: Protest and Print Culture in the African Methodist Episcopal Church” and “Around the Family Altar: Domesticity in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1865–1900.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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