It was planned. He chose the largest African American church in the heart of a vibrant downtown. He had a getaway car. He entered the sanctuary during a scheduled prayer service. He sat. Long enough to see each of his victims. Long enough perhaps, to be sure that the pastor, State Senator Clementa Pinckney, a man known as the conscious of state government, was indeed there, leading the prayer and bible study. And then when he felt that the moment was right, he shot and killed nine praying souls.
After his unthinkable act, he accosted one of the prayer participants that he had not shot and told her that he would let her live so that she can tell what happened. Then he walked calmly out of the sanctuary, out of the church, into a waiting vehicle, and drove away.
To label the assassination of an elected official and prominent pastor along with eight of his parishioners, a suspected hate crime is a gross injustice. This is an act of domestic terrorism. Except for order of magnitude, this is no different from the bombing of the Boston marathon, or the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, or the bombing of a church and four little girls. It was not just racially motivated, but politically motivated because it was a violent, twisted manifestation of the devaluation of African American lives, and the delegitimization of African American political leadership that is a linchpin of right wing politics. And it took place at a church, a sacred place, a symbol of American religious freedom, a beacon of truth and light for centuries.
What makes the killings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC terrorism and not a hate crime? It was terrorism because of the intended impact. This depraved individual (and it is not yet determined if he acted alone) did not simply act on supposed racial animus. To kill his victims was not his only objective. He did not just pick a random group of black people and shoot. This killer wanted to make a statement. He wanted the deaths of his victims to have maximum media impact. He wanted to send a message that was much bigger than hate. A message that African Americans do not deserve the constitutional right of freedom of religion. A message that African Americans are not supposed to become strong leaders who aspire to serve in elected office, who stand with other clergy against the killing of black men like Walter Scott in North Charleston. This killer wanted to strike terror in the hearts of African Americans, that even if you pray in church, your black lives do not matter.
The killer struck a terrorist’s blow, but the reign of terror will not succeed. Christians, progressive politicians and activists, people of good will everywhere; we stand against the demonic forces that seek to kill, steal and destroy the freedoms that are the birthright of all Americans. We stand against the forces of hatred and terror that seek to eviscerate African American humanity. You kill us and we grow stronger. We work together toward the day when God will let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.