In his remarks regarding Wednesday night’s massacre inside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, President Barack Obama outlined how the congregation has a 200-year history of dealing with persecution brought on by racism and hatred.
After a white gunmen, identified as 21-year-old Dylann Roof, shot and killed a pastor and eight other worshipers attending a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church, Obama issued a spoken statement on Thursday condemning the attack and added that he was personally angered by it.
“Any death of this sort is a tragedy,” Obama stated. “There is something particularly heartbreaking about the death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship.”
Reports of survivor testimonies indicate that the gunman’s motives were largely inspired by a racist attitude, in which Roof allegedly felt that black people are “taking over the country” and “have to go.”
“Michelle and I know several members of Emanuel AME Church. We knew their pastor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who, along with eight others, gathered in prayer and fellowship and was murdered last night,” Obama said. “And to say our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families, and their community, doesn’t say enough to convey the heartache and the sadness and the anger that we feel.”
Although the death of pastor Pinckney and the eight others is tragic, this is not the first time this Emanuel AME Church, which dates back to 1816 as the first independent black congregation in the U.S., has been caught in the crosshairs of racially inspired attacks.
Obama explained the central role that the church had in the liberation of African-American slaves led to a large white supremacist pushback against the congregation in the mid-1800s.
One of the church’s founding members, Denmark Vesey, a slave who won his freedom, was arrested, implicated and executed as a result of a secret trial in in 1822. Vesey was accused of organizing a slave revolt plot that would have involved thousands of slaves from around the city and surrounding areas.
After white supremacists found out about the plot, they torched the original Emanuel AME church building.
“Mother Emanuel is, in fact, more than a church. This is a place of worship that was founded by African-Americans seeking liberty,” Obama said. “This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery.”
The church was rebuilt in 1834, but that was during a time when black churches were prohibited from gathering. Obama explained that the church was forced to secretly congregate.
“When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, they conducted services in secret,” Obama explained.
A small prayer circle forms nearby where police are responding to a shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, June 17, 2015. A gunman opened fire on Wednesday evening at the historic African-American church in downtown Charleston and was still at large, a U.S. police official said, but there were no immediate confirmed reports of casualties.
Emanuel AME’s importance also extends into the civil rights era, when leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King spoke at the congregation.
“When there was a nonviolent movement to bring our country closer in line with our highest ideals, some of our brightest leaders spoke and led marches from this church’s steps,” Obama said. “This is a sacred place in the history of Charleston and in the history of America.”
“Reverend Pinckney and his congregation understood that spirit. Their Christian faith compelled them to reach out not just to members of their congregation, or to members of their own communities, but to all in need,” Obama continued. “They opened their doors to strangers who might enter a church in search of healing or redemption. Mother Emanuel church and its congregation have risen before –- from flames, from an earthquake, from other dark times -– to give hope to generations of Charlestonians.”
Also in his statement, Obama argued for more gun control and made the bold claim that malicious attacks, like the one carried out by Roof on Emanuel AME, only seem to happen in America.
“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” Obama contended. “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it.”
Americans should change how they think about gun violence, he added.
“We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun,” Obama argued. “And at some point it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”