Nearly a century after his death, the glowering visage of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman still looks down upon the people of South Carolina from its perch outside the State House in Charleston. 8 feet tall and made of bronze that has oxidized in such a manner as to leave his overcoat looking like it was splattered with bird shit, Tillman keeps watch over the State House he once governed in the shade of the Confederate Flag he loved so well. To call Tillman a racist or a bigot would be wrong, because it would cast a distortedly harsh pall across the vast swath of garden variety racists and bigots who have navigated their way through American society and would not give due credit to the historically heinous nature of Tillman’s hatred.
In 1876, a young Tillman led a group known as the Edgefield Redshirts—who would prove to be a forerunner of the Ku Klux Klan—in an attack against a small black militia in the predominantly black South Carolina town of Hamburg. The conflict arose when a parade organized by Republican activists and black militiamen for the nation’s centennial was broken up by a pair of affluent young white men who purposefully tried to disrupt the parade by driving their horse and buggy through it. Both sides ended up filing criminal charges against each other but, when the trial date arrived all of the action moved out of the courthouse and into the streets.
There, Tillman and his fellow Red Shirts hunted down the undermanned, rag tag group of black militiamen before the trial could begin, cornering them in a drill room above a local store. While they were trapped there, Tillman’s former Confederate compatriot Matthew C. Butler traveled across the Savannah River into Augusta and began drumming up fear by telling residents that he, ““would not be surprised at any time if a riot were to break out”in the town of Hamburg. Later, with an additional group of white Augustans in tow, Butler and Tillman went back to Hamburg and, after making the untenable demand that the black men give up their weapons, opened fire. Some of the militiamen were killed in the ensuing melee, while many more were captured or made to leave town with gunfire accompanying their retreat. 5 of the captured black men who were deemed to be particularly bad eggs by the Red Shirts were handpicked and executed on the spot with a bullet to the head.
14 years later, and in large part riding the groundswell of white public approval from his role in the Hamburg Massacre, Tillman was elected Governor of South Carolina. As governor, Tillman took the lead in the creation of the onerous and shockingly still codified South Carolina state constitution. In this constitution, Tillman swept away the last scraps of Reconstruction and formally ushered in the age of Jim Crow in South Carolina by, among other things, completely disenfranchising the state’s black population. Tillman was not shy about his motivation in creating the new constitution, stating that, “We have done our level best [to prevent blacks from voting]…we have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it.”
If you know nothing else about the State of South Carolina—about its heritage and its history, its dogmas and its demons—know this: A man whose two self-proclaimed greatest moments in life were massacring innocent black men and barring the black race from the ballot box in his state, has his likeness immortalized in bronze in front of the state capital. With this as prologue, it should not come as a shock to anyone that it was in South Carolina that a young white man named Dylann Roof, a man sick with the sort of hatred and bigotry that comes from immersion in a culture of venomous white supremacy, opened fire in Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. And, just as it is with Ben Tillman before him, Roof’s actions cannot be viewed as those of some “lone wolf”, as is so often the disingenuous narrative peddled by the mainstream media. No, the crimes of this man, whose Facebook photos show him sporting clothing with the flags of Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia and who had Confederate flag license plates on his car, can only be viewed through a historical lens—as the logical endpoint of 400 years of deep-seeded racial antagonism that may end with men like Roof, but which begins in the halls of government and the corridors of power in South Carolina and all across our nation.
It was surely not coincidence that the shooter chose June 17th as the date to carry out his terrorist act, for that date marked the 193rd anniversary of the thwarted slave rebellionthat was planned by a free black South Carolinian named Denmark Vesey, which resulted in the burning of the church that has come to be known as “Mother Emanuel” and the hanging of 35 black South Carolinians, including Vesey himself. The roots of this tragedy go far deeper than anything peculiar to the life of Dylann Roof, just as the deaths of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin were about much more than the barbarous acts of Darren Wilson and George Zimmerman. And, if we insist as a society on treating this latest Charleston Massacre as a singular incident that can be resolved through the existing channels of our justice system, we will condemn ourselves to a future in which these sorts of killings continue to be the rule and not the exception.