Last night, in a horrific act of hateful violence, a white gunman shot and killed at least nine people at the historically black Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The incident, which is being investigated as a hate crime, immediately sparked outrage, with many wondering aloud how someone could commit such an act — especially in a church, were the victims were attending a Bible study.
But while Wednesday’s shooting is appalling, it’s not the first time Emanuel A.M.E. has endured violence. The historically progressive church, which was founded in 1791, was burned to the ground in 1822 by white supremacists for its connection to an attempted slave revolt.
In fact, the assault on prayerful worshippers in Charleston is part of a long, bloody history of houses of worship being attacked for their beliefs, their progressive activism, or simply for who they are. There are too many incidents to list all of them in a single post, but we’ve listed a few — both recent and historical — below.
Sunday, September 15, 1963: 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama is bombed using 16 sticks of dynamite, killing four girls and injuring 22 others.
In what is generally considered one of the darkest chapters of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the senseless murder of children at 16th Street Baptist Church rocked the country, with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. calling it “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity” in his eulogy for the victims. But while it was arguably the worst attack of its kind, it was hardly the first: Properties and churches owned and by African Americans in Birmingham endured at least 21 separate explosions in the eight years before 1963, leading some to dub the city “Bombingham.”
Investigators eventually concluded the attack was committed by four members of the Ku Klux Klan, but prosecutions did not begin until 1977.
July 27, 2008: A lone gunman opens fire on a Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, killing two and wounding seven. The shooter said he targeted the church because of its liberal teachings.
According to the Associated Press, Jim D. Adkisson, a 58-year-old truck driver “on the verge of losing his food stamps,” entered Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church while parishioners were gathered to watch the congregation’s youth perform the musical “Annie.” He then pulled out a shotgun and opened fire, leaving behind a note that police officials said expressed hatred of “the liberal movement … as well as gays.” A longtime acquaintance said he also hated “blacks, gays and anyone different from him.”
Adkisson eventually pled guilty to killing two and wounding six others, telling the judge, “Yes, ma’am, I am guilty as charged.”
Sunday, May 24, 2015: A pastor is shot outside a church in Hartford, Connecticut, in what police described as a possible hate crime because of the church’s pro-LGBT views.
According to BuzzFeed, Rev. Augustus Sealy, 54, was shot outside Hartford First Church of the Nazarene around 6:30 a.m. while placing flags in front of the sanctuary in honor of Memorial Day. Police reports say that a vehicle slowly rolled up alongside Sealy before someone in the car fired five gunshots. Sealy survived the shooting, but one bullet struck him in the shoulder, and two hit his leg.
Deputy Police Chief Brian Foley told BuzzFeed: “Some language used in the incident — and given where it was, in front of a church known to be accepting of our LGBT community — it led us to have concern that this is a hate crime.”
August 5, 2012: An armed white supremacist storms a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, shooting six people and wounding four others before committing suicide.
Wade Michael Page, 40, entered the Sikh gurdwara armed with a semi-automatic pistol, where he killed one woman and five men, including an assistant priest. Page, an Army veteran with ties to several white supremacist groups, also wounded an officer before turning his gun on himself.
The Joint Terrorism Task Force investigated the incident as an example of domestic terrorism, and then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder later declared the attack to be “an act of terrorism, an act of hatred, a hate crime.”
April 13, 2014: A Neo-Nazi shoots and kills three people in two separate attacks outside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and Village Shalom, a nearby Jewish retirement community.
The first shooting occurred outside the community center, where people were auditioning for a singing competition and staff were preparing for a performance of To Kill a Mockingbird. The gunman, 73-year-old Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr., fired several shots at the building and bystanders before escaping by car to Village Shalom. There, he fired a shotgun at Dr. William Lewis Corporon, 69, and his 14-year-old grandson Reat Griffin Underwood. Both men succumbed to their wounds, as did another woman, Terry LaManno, who was also shot.
Miller, who was also a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, later said that while none of his victims turned out to be Jewish, he launched the attack “for the specific purpose of killing Jews.” The American Jewish community consistently reports more religiously-motivated hate crimes than any other faith group in the country, according to statistics collected by the FBI.
1995–1996: A series of church fires rock the South, with 37 black churches falling victim to “suspicious fires” in 18 months.
According to a June 16 Washington Post report on a federal investigation of a string of arsons in the mid-1990s, “The people burning down black churches in the South are generally white, male and young, usually economically marginalized or poorly educated, frequently drunk or high on drugs, rarely affiliated with hate groups, but often deeply driven by racism, according to investigators and a review of those arrested or convicted in the burnings.”
The ATF also noted that 23 predominantly white churches were burned during this same time period. The sheer volume of the incidents collectively spurred the House of Representatives to pass legislation to assist federal officials wishing to prosecute the arsonists. The House made it a federal offense to damage religious property simply because of its “racial or ethnic character,” and then-President Bill Clinton also asked Congress for an extra $12 million for investigations.
Tuesday, November 4, 2014: A gunman fires five shots at a mosque in Coachella, California.
At 5:01 a.m. on November 4, an unknown gunman fired several shots at the Islamic Society of Coachella Valley mosque near Los Angeles. The FBI investigated the attack as a possible hate crime, and while no one was hurt, the incident was part of a steadily increasing wave of attacks and suspicious fires enacted against Muslim houses of worship in the United States. This included the murder of a Muslim teen in Kansas City, and at least two mosque burnings over the last two years.
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These are but a few examples from the long list of attacks on houses of worship throughout American history. Yet this list doesn’t even include incidents where individual congregants were targeted instead of communities, such as the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller while he attended church in Wichita, Kansas, and the shooting of Alberta King, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mother, while she played the organ in 1974.
Countless worship spaces have also been threatened or vandalized for various reasons over the years, such as four Presbyterian churches in Missouri that received bomb threats earlier this year after their denomination voted to allow pastors to officiate same-sex marriages. Some churches have stepped up security measures, and lawmakers in Georgia has made it legal to carry guns into church, even as many faith leaders openly oppose such policies.
Taken together, the attack in Charleston is a tragic reminder that American houses of worship, which are supposed to be havens for peace and sanctuary, are all too often sites of hatred, violence, and death.