It is not happenstance that the June 17 2015 racial assault on black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, took place at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.
Just as it has a reputation among many Charleston residents as a beacon of help, hope and healing for disenfranchised people, Emanuel AME conjures up hate and fear in the hearts of others for these same reasons.
For me, a researcher of religion as an agent of social change, the history of the AME Church represents a preeminent case of collective action in the name of social justice and of how forces of intolerance have continually attempted to silence its voices.
A social champion from the beginning
To protest continued discrimination and indignities, in 1787 the Reverend Richard Allen, a freed slave, political activist and Christian moralist, led a contingent of blacks out of the St George Methodist Church in Philadelphia.
They formed the Bethel AME Church in 1794, and with it provided the foundation for the political activism that churches like Emanuel later emulated. As Allen’s biographer Richard S Newman writes:
At the heart of Allen’s moral vision was an evangelical religion - Methodism - that promised equality to all believers in Christ. Indeed, one of Allen’s best claims […] was his attempt to merge faith and racial politics […] Allen’s vision of a moral republic had a secular corollary: the Declaration of Independence. That document, he believed, was a covenant binding Americans of all races, classes, and religions into a nation of equal citizens […] of course, most White founders vehemently disagreed […yet] Allen certainly wanted to remind Black reformers about their moral obligations to love their enemies.
Reverend Allen’s vision of a multiracial democracy required both whites and blacks to adhere to the beliefs found in the Bible and the Declaration of Independence.
Twenty-two years later, 17 black churches in the Northeast selected Reverend Allen as their bishop and formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church denomination. These congregations reflected the spirit of the Free African Society from which they evolved to foster “socioeconomic cooperation in the form of savings, mutual aid, [and] education.”
Secular events such as political mobilization, feeding programs, job programs, schools and other social services were extensions of religious commitment.
Charleston follows suit
It was in 1816, under the leadership of successful shoe and bootmaker Reverend Morris Brown, that a group of black Christians left the segregated Charleston Methodist Episcopal Church and formed several black congregations, including Emanuel AME.
The oldest AME church in the South, “Mother Emanuel,” as the church is affectionately called, has a long history of serving community members. Like many black churches nationwide, Emanuel AME cultivates a space where blacks are validated by God to engage in social service as well as upward mobility via education, hard work, delayed gratification and thrift.
Its present-day prominence in the community reflects the continued importance of Christianity and church involvement among blacks in the United States, despite the decline in religious affiliation among white evangelicals and mainstream churches.
For example, according to a 2009 Pew Research report, 56% of US adults overall consider religion to be very important in their lives: 80% of blacks espouse this view. Thirty-nine percent of all Americans attend religious services at least once a week: 53% of blacks do. Moreover, about 58% of Americans pray at least once a day: 76% of blacks do so.
Emanuel AME and its pastors have been well-known for political activism. From the very beginning, Reverend Brown sacrificed creature comforts as a staunch Abolitionist. Brown was imprisoned for helping slaves purchase their freedom. Decades later, Reverend Clementa Pinckney established himself as a pastor and state senator committed to social justice.
Troubling times and social action
In both the South and North, AME churchgoers have been motivated by a biblical understanding that Christianity is best exhibited outside church walls to bring about equality for all women and men.
To them, segregation and discrimination in every form contradict God’s love for all of humanity, particularly the “least of these.”
For these beliefs in equality, social justice and racial uplift, AME churches in the North and South were targeted by white Methodist leaders, businessmen and vigilantes who believed that blacks were “forgetting their place.”
Here are just a few examples of the assaults that took place on Emanuel AME and other churches over the years: white raids; black church services being made illegal in Charleston between 1834 and 1865; the burning of Emanuel AME after the slave rebellion lead by Denmark Vessey; the police harassment of civil rights protesters at Emanuel AME in the 1960s.
And yet, despite lynching, segregation, and other inequities, black Christians continued to embrace the belief that they would one day experience equality.
For example, in the early 1800s, even if they were not educated themselves, they already had a clear perception of what education would mean to the interests of the church and to the advancement of the African people then held in abject slavery: AME pastors were encouraged by their congregations to organize schools in their communities as part of their ministry.
The AME Church also participated in the Underground Railroad, established ties with Haiti, the world’s oldest black republic, and developed an international network stretching to Canada and Africa.
These beliefs and this activity attracted members. In the late 1800s, for example, Charleston already had what one would refer today as a black megachurch, an AME congregation with average weekly attendance exceeding 2,000 people.
The AME today
In 2012, 13% of black churches nationwide were affiliated with the AME denomination. Today the AME Church has well over 2.5 million members in 39 countries and on five continents. In 2012 it had an annual budget of over US$57 million.
In South Carolina alone there are at least 25 AME churches – more than in Tennessee and Kentucky combined.
Most importantly, a prophetic understanding of Christianity that connects salvation to community service and political action remains at the core of the church’s teachings.
Unfortunately, however, it is these values that fueled the fear and bigotry – as they did in the past – that resulted in the murders of the “Charleston Nine.”
After the prayer vigils and the funerals, what next?
America will lose an opportunity for change on both the national and local level if the recent atrocity in Charleston is considered an isolated incident rather than a systemic problem.
Given the shooter’s profile, we must look at the increasing tensions among politically conservative poor and working-class white males who are having difficulty adjusting to life in a multicultural, global society and to the election of the first black US president.
In addition to challenging systemic racism and intolerance, we must proactively and directly respond to blatant discriminatory acts that are increasingly common.
Bishop Richard Allen sought a vision in which people of all races and ethnicities could live together peaceably in American culture.
We cannot ignore the numerous times Emanuel AME Church has been violated by local whites when blacks were considered too uppity or “moving too fast” toward a vision of equality and social justice.
Even when daring to be better and experience the American Dream, blacks are considered dangerous.
Such was the case in Charleston.
Change is needed across multiple arenas in society, not least in white churches – despite the reticence to mix religion and politics.
Without concerted efforts to change society systemically, it is likely that travesties like the Charleston massacre will continue – followed by more perfunctory sound bites, news reports, prayers and vigils.
For all the public debate, the Confederate flag is still looming large over public buildings. Thousands of Americans across the country regularly engage in Civil War reenactments on the Confederate side. Such signs make it difficult for some people to expect real change.
Perhaps I have become pessimistic. Perhaps, like Bishop Allen, I am beginning to lose faith and hope in the ability of America to truly live out her creed. Like other blacks who may feel similarly, there is need for renewed hope and healing.
Perhaps I should go to church.