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.
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.