“We will not stop welcoming in the stranger, because death is not the last word,” stated Pastor Cress Darwin, following the June 17, 2015 massacre at Emmanuel African Methodist Church. The “stranger” who had been invited in was Dylann Roof. The congregation could not have known that their kindness would be met with violence that would ultimately leave nine dead. Heartbreaking details of the massacre have emerged from survivors, who report that Roof was welcomed into the fellowship and given a Bible. He began shooting when parishioners closed their eyes to pray.
While the parishioners saw Roof as a stranger, Roof was well aware of the church and was not there by chance. Per FBI testimony, Roof scouted locations for months before deciding to fatally target members of the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Both the church and the city were conscious choices for Roof, selected for the large African American population and historical significance.
The massacre marked the final step in a tragic progression for Roof. After dropping out of high school before completing tenth grade, Roof embarked upon a makeshift “education” centered on race relations, which he assembled from Ku Klux Klan books and white nationalist websites. Perplexed by the outrage over the Trayvon Martin case in 2012, Roof began exploring white nationalism and developed the beliefs that were later captured on his website and in his journal. Roof’s writings, commonly referred to as his “manifesto”, outline a number of troubling ideologies about the inferiority of minorities, particularly African Americans, who he referred to as “stupid and violent”. In his journal, Roof eluded to his brutal plan, stating “I have no choice…we have no skinheads, no KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.” Roof’s website also posted numerous photos of him posing with the Confederate flag.
During the trial, survivor Polly Sheppard testified that Roof spared her life on the night of the massacre, instructing her to go on to tell everyone what he did. In this distressing detail, we can infer some of Roof’s beliefs; his belief that his white nationalism agenda was necessary, that his actions were justified, and that his violence deserved to be remembered.
Roof has said he wanted to start a race war. He wanted other “great White minds” to heed his call and follow suit. Roof’s grandiosity and bravado run contrary to the facts of his life, an unemployed young man described as a “loner” who had amassed little education and two recent arrests.
In February 2015, Roof was arrested for possession of Suboxone, a prescription medication typically used to treat opioid dependence. A few months later, he was arrested for trespassing at the local mall, where he had been banned the month prior after asking questions of employees that alarmed mall security.
In reality, Roof was not a “great White mind”; his ideas were not novel or groundbreaking. Perhaps he adopted the notion of white supremacy to overcompensate for a sense of inadequacy. It may have been feelings of powerlessness that led him to identify with the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), the group he cites in his journal entries. Roof credits the CCC with making him aware of the frequency of “black on white crime”, introducing him to white nationalism rhetoric.
Yesterday, the jury from Roof’s federal trial returned a guilty verdict, indicting him on all 33 counts. The facts of the case were largely undisputed by Roof and his defense team. The defense called no witnesses and Roof declined to testify on his own behalf. Roof’s taped confession was shown to jurors, and the 911 calls of his victims were played to illustrate their terror. We may learn more about Roof’s mental health and state of mind in the sentencing phase of the trial, which is set to begin in early January. Roof faces the death penalty.
Roof had hoped that his violence would start a race war. However, his actions inspired a different reaction. In the days following the massacre, the Confederate flag was removed from the Charleston courthouse, where it had flown for fifty-four years. The removal of the flag symbolized a small act of healing for the survivors and victims’ families in the wake of this tragedy, and a testament to Pastor Darwin’s promise that “death is not the last word.”