Charleston and the Southern Gothic: Steeped in a heritage of hate, South Carolina must finally reckon with its past

Dylann Roof and Michael Slager sit in adjacent cells, while the debate over the Confederate flag rages

By Alex Werrell
Published June 24, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)
  (AP/Chuck Burton)
(AP/Chuck Burton)

At the Charleston County Detention Center, two men, both charged with murder, are housed in adjacent cells. One is imprisoned for shooting and killing Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, as he ran away. The other is in custody for executing nine African-Americans—Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Daniel L. Simmons, Susie Jackson, DePayne Middleton Doctor—as they met together in church. The two are not accidental neighbors. Both came from one common place: the long-held mentality that black lives don’t matter. Each embodies and emboldens a terrible legacy and each deserves to stand side-by-side. Yet the community reactions to the two executions differ vastly in scope and unity.

I left Charleston when I was 18 to attend college. Though I still live in New Haven, Connecticut, and teach high school here, Charleston is where I, a white man, grew up. Charleston is home. I can picture the grassy lot with its rickety chain-link fence in North Charleston where Walter Scott died. I can picture the stained glass inside Emanuel AME Church, where I went with Phoney, the black woman who helped raise me and whom I loved; I can picture the food drives there and can hear the singing. These are places I know; these are murders that hit home.

And yet it is only because I left her that I can see Charleston. That which I believed in at home, I had to defend and justify; in New Haven, there’s hardly anyone to defend against. In a duality endemic to the Southern Gothic, Charleston’s unified response following the murders of nine churchgoers does stand in sharp contrast to the ambivalence of Birmingham in 1963, but the mixed responses to the murder of Walter Scott make it clear that the remnants of the Old South linger and languish.

In “All the King’s Men,” Robert Penn Warren’s seminal novel of Southern politics and consequences, Warren wrote: “He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle and is drowsy no more but springs out to fling the gossamer coils about you who have touched the web and then inject the black, numbing poison under your hide. It does not matter whether or not you meant to brush the web of things.”

The spider has never yet left the South. She is there, always lurking, always waiting. She is there because we put her there. Centuries of slavery nourished the spider; decades of eugenic racism kept her alive. As “separate but equal” gave way to “together but unequal,” the spider was considered weak—weaker—and then gone.

Not gone: drowsy. Just a tingle and she springs to life.

 * * *

Susie Jackson was 87 years old. She grew up in the ‘20s and ‘30s in the Jim Crow South. When Susie Jackson was 15—maybe 16—Betty June Binnicker and Mary Emma Thames were killed with a hammer and dumped in a muddy ditch. Because Betty June and Mary Emma were white and because a community hurts when its children hurt, the small town of Alcolu, South Carolina, swiftly and angrily sought justice. Fourteen-year-old George Junius Stinney Jr., a black boy who, though physically incapable of the crime, had the misfortune of having been seen speaking with the two white girls before they were murdered, was arrested and tried by a jury of his all-white peers. He was found guilty, and the Great State of South Carolina pushed through his 90-pound black body 2,400 Volts of electricity.

In her 20s and 30s, Susie Jackson lived in a South Carolina that turned blacks away from the lunch counters, the theaters and the voting booths. Susie Jackson was 35 when Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson—four little black girls—were blown up while donning choir robes at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Maybe she went to Emanuel to pray for them.

Emanuel AME Church stands proudly on Charleston’s Calhoun Street in the shadow of the Column of John Caldwell Calhoun, who fought for states’ rights, secession and slavery even as he withered away from consumption.

For its slave-revolt history, whites burned Emanuel down; it was rebuilt. The white community routinely evicted the parishioners; undaunted, they came back together. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, protests were conceived and begun at Emanuel. Martin Luther King Jr. preached for equality and Coretta Scott King marched for living wages at Emanuel. Susie Jackson, a witness to time and progress, was 80 when America elected Barack Obama president of the United States.

I never had the pleasure to meet Susie Jackson because, on the 193rd anniversary of Denmark Vesey’s abortive rebellion, an angry white man gunned Susie Jackson down. June 17 was a date the killer had chosen deliberately; Emanuel AME was his specific target.

The South moves forward one step at a time, but one foot is forever rooted in the past.

 * * *

One hundred miles to the northwest of Charleston flies the Confederate Flag: 30 feet in the air and directly in front of the Statehouse. It came down from its perch atop the Capitol after the Great Compromise of 2000—about two months after South Carolina recognized Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an official holiday.

Elsewhere on the Statehouse grounds stands a statue of Sen. Strom Thurmond, who promised South Carolina in 1948 that there were not enough troops in the Army to “admit the N***er Race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” He tried his damnedest to stay true to that promise when he filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1958 for 24 hours and 18 minutes—during which time Strom regaled his fellow senators with the secret to his grandmother’s treasured cornbread biscuit recipe. By the time Strom died at the age of 100, he had never acknowledged in public the daughter he had by his 16-year-old black servant, Tunch. Seventy-seven years after Strom fathered that child and a few years after the flag was moved, the late senator’s family chiseled Essie Mae Washington’s name into her father’s memorial alongside the names of her half-brothers and half-sisters.

The relocation of the flag—however inadequate—and the acknowledgment of a daughter—however late—yoke together both past and present. They are acts that approach decency, and in South Carolina we call that progress.

The shooting of Walter Scott, similarly, spans two Carolinas: the South Carolina in which Susie Jackson was born and the South Carolina in which she died. Because of this duality, Walter Scott’s death had a tinge of the Southern Gothic: that mossy swamp that eats itself, where time settles putrid and stagnant, where conflict bristles between and across generations, races and genders.

Southern Gothic is rooted in entrapment—in the ghosts of families torn apart and sold as chattel—but the Civil War and Reconstruction broke down these physical fetters, and they disappeared into the past and into the region’s psyche. Just as Calhoun casts his long shadow on Emanuel, that shadow of the past lingers over Charleston and the state.

Walter Scott of Charleston, though he lived in the present, died in the past. He was a man who had committed no violent crime, who presented no threat to the officer or anybody else, who had no weapon, whose back was turned, who was at a distance. The officer stood erect and calmly cut Walter Scott’s life short with shot after shot. Officer Slager then handcuffed Walter Scott and left him to die in the Southern dust, planting a Taser by Walter Scott’s body in an attempt to frame the dying man.

The problem with Walter Scott—apart from the murder of Walter Scott—is that many reactions to Walter Scott’s death blame him. Many cannot see that Walter Scott’s death belongs to a legacy of race killings in the South—or that Michael Slager belongs in that cell next to Dylann Roof. While he did not set out to commit a hate crime or have an apartheid flag sewn to his jacket, Michael Slager is guilty of acting upon his belief that black lives don’t matter.

Perhaps it is because many white Southerners are unable to empathize with a black individual as they would with a white — a massacre is identifiably a tragedy, but another individual dead black man is just another dead black man? Walter Scott was one of “those people” being gunned down—“and why was he running anyway?” is a depressingly common refrain.

 * * *

The Southern identity is as much about forgetting as it is about remembering, as much about confrontation as it is about evasion. Dylann Roof adorned his car with images of the Confederate flag and sewed the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa onto his hunting jacket. All three flags represent nations founded upon the tenets of racial supremacy, and yet only two are uniformly considered racist.

It is a delicate dance from day-to-day to rationalize those stars and bars: “It’s heritage, not hate,” many claim. This canned answer—found on bumper stickers and in unfortunate conversations—is a clumsy attempt to embrace the past but shrug off all accountability therein.

That heritage is hate. The Confederacy for which that flag waved was founded upon, financed by and representative of hatred. When a white man claims it represents “our heritage,” he means white heritage. When Roof explained to his victims that he was there with a gun because he thought blacks were “taking over our country,” he was murdering to protect that outdated “our”: that one with no room for black in it, only white.

The Confederate flag at the Statehouse cannot simply be lowered; it is padlocked to the top of the pole. It is secured there because those who support it believe that, like the white race, the flag is always a target. That padlock is a fitting symbol of our state, for the past, after all, is not past: It is locked in place.

“Now is not the time to get political,” those who defend the flag say. “Now is the time to heal.” It is, they say, not about the past: “Confederate flag doesn't mean anything, [sic] come on post and courier [sic] don't do the Al Sharpton thing and race bait.”

It is so easy to hide behind a veneer of care and respect, so easy to postpone what is necessary, through chiding those who speak out to prevent another mass shooting, another hate crime, another act of terror. It is so easy, but it is not right.

Until the average Charlestonian and the average South Carolinian can see that both the killing of Walter Scott and the killings of those nine—Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lee Lance, Cynthia Hurd, Daniel L. Simmons, Susie Jackson, DePayne Middleton Doctor—until they can see that all were executions, then there’s a long way to go.

It was thus a surprise to many that Gov. Nikki Haley took the first step and offered up the most symbolically powerful assertion she could: “That flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state.” This palpable expression of empathy both offers more and costs more: Haley will lose political capital among conservative white voters, her base.

Just as some cannot bridge the empathetic gap between the shooting of Walter Scott and the massacre at Emanuel, many cannot extrapolate from this tragedy that the Confederate flag is an integral part of a racist heritage. One such person replied swiftly and harshly on Facebook to Sen. Lindsey Graham, who stood behind Haley: “This statement has changed my views and you sir have lost my vote. If [the killer] was holding the American flag, would we be destroying it? The flag is misinterpreted by many and now including you is taken advantage of in the wrong ways.”

The fate of the flag will be determined by whether those amenable to lowering it will risk alienating their political base—constituents who are unable to see the essential link between the flag and racism—in order to begin righting the wrongs of the past. Though both the House and the Senate voted nearly unanimously to allow debate on the flag, the two-thirds majority needed to lower it is one that will be very difficult to attain.

Paul Thurmond—whose name is carved next to Essie Mae Washington's on Strom’s memorial—spoke today in support of Haley and disinherited the past and the heritage of his father: “For the life of me, I will never understand how anyone could fight a civil war based in part on the desire to continue the practice of slavery. Think about it for just a second. Our ancestors were literally fighting to continue to keep human beings as slaves, and continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will. I am not proud of that heritage.”

His words and Haley’s words have made it clear that vastly more important than the need to embrace the heritage of the Confederacy is the need to embrace our black citizens. “Our heritage,” for the first time, can refer to all South Carolinians.

Alex Werrell

Alex Werrell was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. A graduate of Yale College, he now teaches high school English in Connecticut.

MORE FROM Alex Werrell