Our last newsletter went out on June 16. The next day, as you know, horror unfolded in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The young white man who murdered the very people who had welcomed him into their house of worship mouthed words of hate and ignorance that have long echoes in our nation's past. Several commentators over the next few days remarked on how history played into the tragedy and Americans' response. Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, Jr., as he grappled with understanding how such hatred could have emerged, remarked, "We in America were not taught African-American history. It was never in the history books, and we don't know the story." Historian Douglas R. Egerton, though, believed that knowledge of history was very much alive in the killer's mind. In an Op Ed in the New York Times Egerton wrote "to dismiss [Dylan Roof] as simply a troubled young man is to disregard history. For 198 years, angry whites have attacked Emanuel A.M.E. and its congregation, and when its leaders have fused faith with political activism, white vigilantes have used terror to silence its ministers and mute its message of progress and hope." Because the attack happened on the anniversary of Denmark Vesey's failed plot for a slave revolt in Charleston, Egerton pointed out that either Dylan Roof knew that history or it was a "ghastly coincidence."
We all share the sense that history is central to this story, even as we are still reeling, trying to make sense of it and how to move forward. We don't have any answers. But at the Southern Oral History Program, we do have, at least, the sources with which people can try to wrestle with history, to look at it, and listen to it, directly. We can point, for instance, to a collection of interviews undertaken in Charleston in 2008, as part of the Long Civil Rights Movement project. The interviews focus on the idea of economic justice, and the lives of grassroots activists whose work pursued it. You can find that series here:
In the days and weeks that followed the massacre, we saw a series of changes on the political and cultural landscape happen with a swiftness that was dizzying. Calls for the Confederate flag to be removed from the South Carolina State House were successful. It was a moment to celebrate for sure, but as Ernestine Carew, who was ninety-five at the time she was interviewed in 2008, reminds us, "There were so many other things, I think, to fight for that were more important than the flag... A flag can't do anything. It's just a statement. Yeah, but there's so much we need to do, you know." You can listen to Ms. Carew or read the transcript of her interview.
We continue to collect interviews with people whose stories are deeply wrapped up in the events that unfolded in Charleston. On May 19, just a month before murders, field scholar Darius Scott sat down to interview William Saunders in North Charleston. Mr. Saunders led the historic 100-day hospital worker strike in Charleston in the 1960s. He was long involved with the Lowcountry Newsletter and is the former owner of WPAL-AM radio station, both of which served the black community and had an activist bent. In a 2014 interview for a local newspaper, he recounted his anger over the media's lack of attention to the important role they played.
"The white media sanitizes our roles until we become invisible. It's more than racism because it's also about power. They will not recognize that we exist! We're not recognized unless we commit a crime." He continued, "Twenty years from now we'll be dead and there'll be no one of us left to tell the story."
SOHP wants to make sure that Mr. Saunders' story and many others get told. In his recent interview with Darius, Mr. Saunders discussed his involvement in the founding of the Committee for Better Racial Assurance (COBRA) and his multifaceted activism in the area. Saunders characterized his advocacy work as "trouble-making" for the sake of human rights.
Saunders' was a long and important career in activism. But after the shootings at Emanuel Church, he talked again with a local reporter. The murders, he said, made him reflect back on all his work with a feeling of hopelessness. "I've been crying a lot, a hell of a lot," he said.
We must, as historians, do our part to contribute to a nuanced, ongoing conversation about justice and violence in our nation's past, present and future. We hope and trust that the many voices preserved at the Southern Oral History Program can contribute to that essential dialogue.
--Rachel F. Seidman