Making Sense of the Charleston Massacre

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By Cleo Scott Brown

Charleston, SC—my home for the last 35 years. My heart is heavy today. I write and teach others about race relations so I was already aware of the historical cycles of harmony and disharmony in American race relations and that we were fast approaching that frightening part of the cycle but even while recognizing the signs, I hadn’t expected we had reached this point of escalation.

Though not knowing any of the murdered close and personal, they were people in my world. I’ve been to track meets watching the girls under the Goose Creek High coach. The youngest victim had been practicing a play in the room next to my office just the night before. I’ve used the libraries where the librarian of 31 years worked and ironically, the last time I was at Mother Emanuel was two months ago for a Race Relations event moderated by now murdered Pastor/ Senator Pinckney.

“I have to do it. You are raping our women and taking over our country.” That was the killer’s explanation to the youngest victim, a recent college graduate, before he killed him.

So the questions come. One is most disturbing because my parent’s generation raised it during my childhood when our churches were attacked and our ministers murdered, often by people who themselves went to church. What convinces someone that an entire race of people are so in conflict with your best interests that in your mind, everyone from that race becomes a threat or your enemy, potentially worthy of death? As a historian, I spend a lot of time thinking about these repeated cycles of racial disharmony and I believe part of the answer can be found in an earlier essay I wrote, a portion of which I share below:

“Maybe I’d Rather Believe a Lie”


In January, our Charleston paper ran a poem written by South Carolina’s Poet Laureate, Marjory Wentworth that covered different aspects of the state’s history. I was shocked at the level of verbal attacks indicating that she must not like her state or that she was trying to stir up trouble and how she should “leave the past in the past” by never mentioning certain aspects of our history.

I remember looking at an upper elementary history textbook. Slavery was covered in two paragraphs and it said that the people worked on plantations and sometimes they sang while they worked. Nothing indicated they were stolen people, bought and sold, working for free against their will, but yet they were SINGING!? From what place of the heart is a writer and publisher coming if they actually feel the need to present such serious distortions of fact. All too often, history is written in such a way that the descendants of enslaved people are made to feel embarrassed while the descendants of the people responsible for or who benefited from great acts of inhumanity are made to feel proud.

I remember the elder attorneys at the 2011 Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division reunion talking about how far from the truth the movie Mississippi Burning was in its failure to acknowledge the role that African Americans played in fighting for their own rights. Why did the film’s creators overstate the role of the White federal agents and downplay the role of the local African Americans? Why sugarcoat the barbaric Jim Crow system of my lifetime and pretend that the generational consequences of that horrible system must be due to some other cause?

General unwillingness to record America’s history honestly and fairly and the willingness to denigrate those who are honest lie at the root of our struggle with racial division and conflict today. It is difficult for people to see another point of view as valid when that view isn’t validated anywhere in their world.

This hiding of historical truth is like treating a highly infected wound with a huge bandage but without cleaning it or treating it or exposing it to the air so that it can heal. People know the injury exists but never grasp its grievousness because they can’t see it.

As we come to grips with this horrible tragedy and honor those we lost, I challenge everyone to to learn more about the history that shapes the people who are alive, who are your older co-workers but who are of the age to be in charge, to set policy. See the movie Selma. My book, Witness to the Truth, would be a useful tool for teens and adults to better understand the underlying causes of today’s racial conflict.

The truth heals. It can be painful and upsetting but it liberates. It seriously hurts to treat a wound, but without the pain it will fester and spread.

We cannot heal what we will not acknowledge.