Dy­lann Roof and the fear of black takeover

For those who per­sist in this pho­bia, the mere sight of black peo­ple en­gag­ing in Amer­i­can civic life ... can be too much to take.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - Jason Mor­gan Ward is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of history at Mis­sis­sippi State Univer­sity and au­thor of “De­fend­ing White Democ­racy: The Mak­ing of a Seg­re­ga­tion­ist Move­ment and the Re­mak­ing of Racial Pol­i­tics, 1936-1965.” His sec­ond book, “Hang­ing Bridge: A Lync

Ino­ticed the flags first. In the most widely cir­cu­lated im­age of Dy­lann Roof, who is charged with mur­der­ing nine African Amer­i­cans at Charleston, S.C.’s Emanuel African Methodist Epis­co­pal Church, the white 21year-old sports a jacket em­bla­zoned with flag patches from two failed­white­supremacist­states— Rhode­sia and apartheid-era South Africa. In another shot, Roof ap­pears to be show­ing off a flag-fes­tooned li­cense plate that pays homage to another failed white su­prem­a­cist regime— the Con­fed­er­ate States of Amer­ica.

When con­sid­ered along­side the words the gun­man al­legedly ut­tered be­fore open­ing fire— the last his nine vic­tims heard on Earth— the flags point to a deep history of racial fear that Roof in­her­ited and em­bod­ied Wed­nes­day night.

Ac­cord­ing to eye­wit­ness ac­counts, Roof said, among other things, “You’re tak­ing over our coun­try.” Most observers, a gag­gle of dis­sem­bling politi­cians ex­cepted, have taken the killer’s own words as ev­i­dence of racial mo­tive, if not pathol­ogy.

For most of the South’s history, the fear of African Amer­i­cans “tak­ing over” per­me­ated main­stream po­lit­i­cal cul­ture. That para­noia ran deep­est in states like South Carolina, where African Amer­i­cans con­sti­tuted a ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion well into the 20 cen­tury.

Whites in­Charleston­cer­tainly acted on those anx­i­eties in 1822, when­theyex­e­cut­edDen­markVe­sey, a found­ing­mem­berof Emanuel AME Church, for plot­ting a slave re­bel­lion.

Af­ter eman­ci­pa­tion, white su­prem­a­cists stoked fears of “Ne­gro dom­i­na­tion” to over­throw South Carolina’s in­ter­ra­cial Re­con­struc­tion gov­ern­ment. The ar­chi­tects of Jim Crow en­acted dis­fran­chise­ment mea­sures such as poll taxes and lit­er­acy tests as safe­guards against the seem­ingly ever-present threat of another black takeover.

It is fit­ting, if co­in­ci­den­tal, that author­i­ties ap­pre­hended Roof just across the state line in Shelby, N.C., the birthplace of the man­who ar­guably did more than any­one to sear the specter of Ne­gro dom­i­na­tion into the na­tional con­scious­ness.

Thomas Dixon’s “The Clans­man,” a novel set in Re­con­struc­tion-era South Carolina, inspired the1915 block­buster film “Birth of a Na­tion” and glo­ri­fied white su­prem­a­cist vi­o­lence as a heroic re­sponse to black civic par­tic­i­pa­tion. Few re­mem­ber Dixon’s apoc­a­lyp­tic fi­nal novel, “The Flam­ing Sword,” which de­picted aMarx­ist-inspired, all-black“Nat Turner Le­gion” over­run­ning the South in the1930s. Dixon died be­fore he could com­plete his planned tril­ogy, in which a white “Pa­triot Union” would pre­sum­ably take Amer­ica back.

By the 1930s, South Carolina had lost its black ma­jor­ity to out­mi­gra­tion, but white su­prem­a­cists con­tin­ued­to­trade in fears of black dom­i­na­tion. In 1936, Sen. “Cot­ton Ed” Smith stormed out of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion in Philadelphia af­ter a lo­cal black pas­tor rose to de­liver theopening­in­vo­ca­tion. The­mere hint of black in­clu­sion in what South­ern­ers re­garded as the white man’s party sparked threats of a mass po­lit­i­cal de­fec­tion.

In the ear­ly1950s, South Carolina Demo­cratic Gov. James F. Byrnes ac­cused na­tional party lead­ers of adopt­ing a so­cial­is­tic plat­form due solely to pres­sure from “Ne­gro politi­cians … in­ter­ested only in race prob­lems.” South Carolina news­pa­per­man Wil­liam Work­man, a prom­i­nent seg­re­ga­tion­ist who de­fected to theRepub­li­can Party bythe early 1960s, de­cried black ac­tivists’ grow­ing po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence on both par­ties as proof of the “dis­tress­ing tyranny of the nu­mer­i­cal mi­nor­ity.”

The fear of blacks tak­ing over world­wide also fu­eled Amer­i­can seg­re­ga­tion­ists’ in­ter­est in south­ern Africa, where white-mi­nor­ity regimes in South Africa and Rhode­sia teetered on the brink of col­lapse.

Even as the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity shunned these pariah states, the seg­re­ga­tion­ist Cit­i­zens’ Coun­cils, which peaked at 40,000 mem­bers in South Carolina, claimedthe­mas kin­dred­spir­its, while de­pict­ing African an­ti­colo­nial­ists and African Amer­i­can civil rights ac­tivists alike as spear-chuck­ing sav­ages and en­e­mies ofWestern civ­i­liza­tion.

What­ever he thinks he knows about south­ern Africa — he was born af­ter white rule ended in both Rhode­sia and South Africa — Roof is not the first white South­erner to feel con­nected to it.

Whether he knows it or not, Dy­lann Roof in­her­ited a log­i­cand a po­lit­i­cal legacy that de­fied sta­tis­tics, themar­chof time, an­dany shredof com­mon­hu­man­ity. Gen­er­a­tions of white su­prem­a­cists stoked the fear that African Amer­i­cans could take over a di­vided, ap­a­thetic and un­sus­pect­ing white na­tion.

The ob­ses­sion with black dom­i­na­tion ren­dered African Amer­i­cans si­mul­ta­ne­ously suband su­per­hu­man, un­able to con­trib­ute to Amer­i­can so­ci­ety yet ca­pa­ble of de­stroy­ing it.

The dom­i­na­tion myth proved just as con­tra­dic­tory for white su­prem­a­cists, who si­mul­ta­ne­ously rev­eled in their su­pe­ri­or­ity and lamented their po­lit­i­cal im­po­tence at the hands of mi­nor­ity tyranny.

For those who per­sist in this pho­bia, the mere sight of black peo­ple en­gag­ing in Amer­i­can civic life— whether peace­ful protesters and vot­ers, a South Carolina state sen­a­tor or the pres­i­dent of the United States — can be toomuch to take.

In­deed, for decades, the cen­tral les­son of white supremacy was that any black en­gage­ment in­pub­lic life coul­dand­would ul­ti­mately de­stroy the na­tion. As a na­tive white South­erner, I had heard echoes of these fears straight from peo­ple’s mouths long be­fore I en­coun­tered them in the ar­chives.

Thank God, not ev­ery­one who still be­lieves that African Amer­i­cans are “tak­ing over” is homi­ci­dal. Even if they are draw­ing their history from the same poi­soned well as Dy­lann Roof.

Wes Bau­smith Los An­ge­les Times

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