“I have to do it. You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go,” declared the young white gunman as he emptied clip after clip of a .45 caliber handgun into the small group of African-American church-goers at a Wednesday evening Bible study.
After sitting amongst the congregation for nearly an hour, the young man stood up and started firing the handgun he’d recently received as a birthday present. He kept firing, reloading his gun five times in a rampage that left eight people dead on the floor of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Another, the ninth, died on the way to the hospital. The church had been founded by worshipers fleeing racism and had previously burned to the ground for its connection with a thwarted slave revolt. Now it was once again in the crosshairs.
The church sits less than a dozen miles from the park where Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was gunned down by a white police officer. The calls of “Black Lives Matter” were still ringing throughout Charleston, when gunshots again cut down black lives.
The victims of this brutal and cowardly attack inside the sanctuary of a house of worship included a South Carolina state senator, a librarian, and a recent college graduate.
The alleged killer, later identified as Dylann Storm Roof of nearby Lexington, fled the scene in his black four-door sedan adorned with an ornamental license plate that read “Confederate States of America” and bore the image of the Confederate flag.
After a 15-hour manhunt, Roof was arrested without incident nearly 250 miles away during a traffic stop in Shelby, North Carolina.
Though new details continue to be unearthed, a picture of Dylann Storm Roof as a withdrawn, troubled young man with an interest in white supremacy is starting to emerge.
A roommate told ABC News that Roof was “big into segregation and other stuff. He wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to something like that and then kill himself.”
The Daily Beast quoted a classmate from White Knoll High School about Roof’s reputation for spouting racism. “Just he had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say. Strong conservative beliefs,” John Mullins said. “He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that. You don’t really think of it like that.”
“Southern pride” still runs deep in some parts of South Carolina. The wounds of slavery and the Civil War are still unhealed, in many ways. Despite many protests, the Confederate flag continues to fly over the state capitol. In January 2000, at the opening of a new millennium, 6,000 Confederate flag supporters marched through Columbia, the state capitol, according to Leonard Zeskind’s Blood and Politics. This spring, just 90 miles from the shooting, a statewide Tea Party convention invited a white nationalist leader speak. He was canceled after he was exposed by IREHR. However, at that convention, they let potential presidential candidates share the stage with a Tea Partier who promotes a book that calls blacks “pickaninnies,” claims that slaves were treated humanely, and that slavery was just as hard on slave-masters.
Beyond the racist jokes and Confederate flags on his car, Roof displayed more of the warning signs of involvement with white nationalism on his Facebook page. Roof’s profile photo shows him in the winter woods staring into the camera, clad in a black jacket with two flags affixed above his right breast: an apartheid-era South African flag, and a flag used to represent the unrecognized state of Rhodesia, after the former British colony of South Rhodesia fractured and a white minority attempted to take control of the country. Both patches have been worn by white nationalists in the United States to express fidelity to white minority rule.
Dylann Storm Roof (source: Facebook)
Recent arrests also indicate that Roof may have had additional targets in mind for his killing spree. Roof attracted attention at the Columbiana Centre, a shopping mall, in February when he asked store employees “out-of-the-ordinary questions” such as how many people were working and what time they would be leaving, according to a police report. A police officer questioning Roof at the scene discovered that Roof was illegally in possession of a controlled substance. Roof was arrested and charged with felony drug possession. In April, Roof was charged with trespassing on the roof of the same mall.
In a sad commentary about the dominance of gun culture, the same morning that The Charleston Post and Courier ran a front-page story the shooting with the headline “Church attack kills 9,” some readers found the headline obscured by a sticker advertising “Ladies’ Night” at the ATP Gun Shop & Range in Summerville, South Carolina.