Hate crimes not confined to history

THE ISSUE: The massacre of nine blacks in a Charleston, South Carolina, prayer meeting is a reminder that hate crimes are not confined to history. In Alabama, as in South Carolina, race-based hatred remains a vibrant and horrifying force.

Possibly more acutely than the residents of most states, Alabamians can feel the horror of Wednesday’s shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

While the investigation continues, initial indications are that a young white man entered the church, sat at a pew for an hour, and then shot and killed nine black church members during a prayer meeting.

It was, police said, a hate crime. Photos of the prime suspect show him in a jacket bearing the flags of apartheid-era South Africa. Another photo shows him sitting on the hood of a car with a Confederate license plate. According to reports, a surviving witness quoted the shooter as saying, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Alabama’s empathy for the horror felt by South Carolinians stems from our long history of hate crimes. As a state, we continue to struggle with the twisted, mercenary logic that justified slavery. We strain to understand a Civil War that was fought in part over the horrifying principle that a state has a right to decide whether to enslave human beings.

We read of the lynchings, tortures and rapes that occurred both prior to and during the Reconstruction Era.

And many of us remember the horrifying violence, much of it perpetrated by hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, that splintered Alabama during the civil rights era. Alabama’s identity remains inextricably and sadly tied to the bombing, in 1963 by the KKK, of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four young black girls died in the blast, which injured many more.

The most tragic aspect of hate crimes in Alabama, as in South Carolina, is that they are not confined to history.

Data collected by the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center indicate hate crimes remain at historically high levels. The victims are most often black. The perpetrators are most often white.

The Southeast, including Alabama, is a hotbed of hate organizations. The SPLC lists 18 such organizations in the state, including organizations based in Huntsville, Elkmont, Killen and Florence.

So even as we pray for the members of Emanuel AME Church and the people of Charleston, we need to take heed. The hate that turned a prayer meeting into a massacre in Charleston is a vibrant force in Alabama. In Alabama, as in South Carolina, racial hatred is not just a subject for history books.

(Published June 19, 2015)

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