Wednesday night’s mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina represents an attack on a prominent symbol in the African American faith community. Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church is the oldest A.M.E. church in the South — often referred to as “Mother Emanuel” — and has a rich history of standing up to forces of oppression.
Nine people have been confirmed dead after a shooter, identified as 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, opened fire in the midst of a Bible study at the church. The shooting, which is being investigated as a hate crime, carries particular significance to the people who are familiar with Emanuel A.M.E.’s legacy.
“It’s not just a church. It’s also a symbol … of black freedom,” Robert Greene, a scholar of 20th century Southern history at the University of South Carolina, told the Washington Post. “That’s why so many folks are so upset tonight, because it’s a church that represents so much about the rich history and tradition of African Americans in Charleston.”
The congregation dates back to 1791, when it was formed by a coalition of free blacks and slaves. It has always been a hub of organizing and resistance. White residents of Charleston closely monitored the church, and sometimes disrupted its worship services, out of fear over what black attendees might be planning together. One of the church’s founders, Denmark Vesey, was indeed laying the groundwork for a rebellion. In 1822, Emanuel A.M.E. was investigated for its role in Vesey’s attempted slave revolt and subsequently burned to the ground.
The church was rebuilt, but, thanks to laws prohibiting all-black congregations enacted throughout much of the South, parishioners were forced to meet in secret. In 1865, after years of underground worship, the church was officially recognized again. Congregants adopted the Hebrew name “Emanuel” — which means “God is with us.”
The building was destroyed yet again in 1886 by an earthquake, and was yet again rebuilt.
During the 21st century, Emanuel A.M.E. was a fixture of the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited the church in 1962 for a rally focused on voter registration, during which he declared that voting was the key to making the “American dream a reality.” In 1969, Coretta Scott King led a crowd of 1,600 protesters to the church in support of the city’s mostly black hospital workers, during which dozens of attendees were arrested.
Today, the church is designated as an African American National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service. On its website, the Park Service notes that Emanuel A.M.E.’s history “reflects the development of religious institutions for African Americans in Charleston” as a whole.
Roof may or may not have been aware of the rich history of Mother Emanuel when he walked into the church on Wednesday night. But those who worship there know for sure.
“This church and this site, this area, has been tied to the history of African Americans since about the early 1800s,” Pinckney told a group of visitors. “It stands for the universal vision of all people being fairly treated under the law, as God sees us in His sight.”
The video of that speech is now being flooded with comments expressing condolences for Pinckney and his faith community. “I doubt that few who are familiar with Charleston will sleep tonight. I know that I won’t,” one commenter wrote. “I feel like I’m back in the 1960’s and not in a good way.”