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The Internationalist
  June  2015

Horrendous Murder of Nine African Americans by White Supremacist

Charleston Massacre and Cop Terror:
It’s Racist American Capitalism

Finish the Civil War with Workers Revolution!

Hundreds of demonstrators in “march to save black lives” stop in front of Daughters of the Confederacy building during march on the Confederate Museum in Charleston, June 20, to protest massacre of nine African Americans by a white supremacist killer in Emanuel AME Church.  (Photo: David Goldman/AP)

After the lynching of Trayvon Martin by a racist vigilante, after the cop murders of Eric Garner in Staten Island, Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, Tamir Rice in Cleveland in 2014, then Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and so many others – and after the mass protests coast-to-coast unleashed by those racist murders and by the impunity of the racist murderers – now comes the horrific massacre of nine African Americans in a church in Charleston. It doesn’t stop, and for a reason: ever since slavery, violent racist suppression, repression and oppression of black people is part of the DNA of American capitalism. That heritage and that reality is what was shown in Charleston, once the prime slave market of the pre-Civil War South.

The authorities and official manufacturers of public opinion try as they might to portray this gruesome slaughter as the work of a lone, deranged gunman, and the appropriate response as just sorrow at the tragedy, not anger at the atrocity. Politicians attend prayer meetings from Charleston to Washington, New York and around the country. The media highlight the heart-wrenching words of forgiveness from the relatives of the victims. The liberal Democratic mayor makes much of the fact that the killer was not from Charleston. President Obama tries to shift the focus to gun control and away from the virulent racism the killings expressed. But the fact is that this massacre was no aberration, it was an integral part of a rising line of murderous racist reaction in recent years.

The gunman, Dylann Storm Roof, was hardly deranged, he was a cold-blooded killer. His Internet “manifesto” shows that he was responding to recent events, and whether or not he had ties to racist terrorist groups he was part of a white supremacist milieu. Clearly he relished living in infamy, as a hero to some. It was a rant by a loser identifying with other lost causes, from the slaveholders’ Confederacy to the white citizens councils that enforced Jim Crow segregation to the rulers of apartheid South Africa and colonial Rhodesia. (He titled his screed, “The Last Rhodesian.”) And he remarked to his black victims, “you’re taking over the country,” an obvious reference to Obama, the first black president. He was just acting out the fantasies of reactionary Tea Party bigots and racist right-wing talk show hosts and their substantial audiences.

With the attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, everyone immediately thought of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and the four black girls killed there. There were the obligatory references to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and talk of healing. Naturally there was no mention of the fifth victim that day, a black youth shot in the back by police as they broke up a crowd of thousands of protesters. The Birmingham church bombing came two weeks after the August 1963 March on Washington, where King made his “I have a dream” speech imagining racial harmony, and a week after Alabama governor George Wallace said that to stop integration Alabama needed a “few first-class funerals.” Malcolm X derisively referred to the “farce on Washington” and in response to the Birmingham church bombing said it was “not a dream but a nightmare,” and blamed the federal government.

Charleston is a city steeped in the history of the slave South, which is its major attraction as a tourist destination today. Not only was it the center of the slave trade, the site of the first professional police force in the United State, born from slave-catching patrols, and where the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861, it was the site of the 1822 planned slave revolt led by Denmark Vesey. Vesey, who was born as the slave Telemaque in the Virgin Islands but managed to purchase his freedom, was a founder of the church which became the Emanuel AME. The uprising was planned for July 14, the day the French Revolution began in 1789 which first abolished slavery in Saint-Domingue (Haiti). Vesey visited Haiti as a seaman and was inspired by the Haitian Revolution, the first victorious slave insurrection in history.

Statue commemorating slave revolt leader Denmark Vesey, erected in Charleston's Hampton Park in 2014 over considerable opposition. 

But the slave revolt was betrayed, a secret court was convened and Vesey was hanged, along with others, on the eve of the July 4th Independence Day holiday. Vesey was a preacher, and justified the struggle to free the slaves with verses from the Christian Bible about delivering the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage. Because of this, and because several other AME members were allegedly involved in the slave conspiracy, city officials ordered the congregation disbanded and the church burned to the ground. So in striking at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the white racist terrorist was aiming at the specter of black revolt. Moreover, he did so on the very day (June 17) that in 1822 Charleston authorities began rounding up the slaves accused of “exciting insurrection.” Can that be an accident?

The struggle of African Americans in Charleston did not end with the suppression of Denmark Vesey’s Revolt. The very first black regiment in the Union Army during the Civil War was the First South Carolina Volunteers, composed of escaped slaves, while the more famous Massachusetts 54th (whose heroism was celebrated in the film Glory) was drawn from free Northern blacks. Moreover, the birthplace of black labor organization in the South was on the Charleston docks. As Philip Foner writes in his History of the Labor Movement in the United States (Vol. 1):

“In 1867, a wave of strikes swept the South. A strike on the levee in Mobile early in 1867 spread to other industries, resulting in some of the most stirring mass demonstrations of southern history. About the same time the Negro longshoremen in Charleston formed the Longshoremen’s Protective Union Association and won their strike for higher wages. After the strike the Charleston Daily News referred to the association as the ‘most powerful organization of the colored laboring class in South Carolina’.”

The LPUA was the predecessor of today’s Local 1422 of the International Longshoremen’s Association.

The longshoremen of ILA Local 1422 have waged hard battles to defend their own interests and those of other black workers. In 1969, a two-month dock strike inspired hospital workers to go on strike for recognition of their union, Local 1199. After months of marches, the ILA settled the matter by threatening to shut down the port in support of the hospital workers. In January 2000, ILA Local 1422 fought back against an assault by 600 riot police with armored cars, helicopters, snipers, police boats and attack dogs. The “Charleston Five” dock workers were held under house arrest until November 2001 when worldwide protest and solidarity action forced the state to scale back the charges and let them go.1

Today, the power of labor must be brought to bear in the fight against racist terror, whether by the police or vigilantes like Dylann Roof. Last month, in a groundbreaking action, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 shut down the Port of Oakland, California to demand “Stop Police Terror.” The West Coast longshore union was encouraged in its action by a letter from the South Carolina AFL-CIO responding to the police murder of black worker Walter Scott, whose brother and two other relatives are members of Local 1422. Among the nine people killed in the Emanuel AME Church massacre were the son and an aunt of an ILA member. It would send a strong message to all would-be racist killers, and underline the power of black workers, if Local 1422 were to shut down the port in protest over this heinous atrocity.

The chances are slim that President Obama’s call for even tighter gun control laws in the wake of the Charleston massacre will be met. Nor should it be. No amount of additional hurdles will keep weapons out of the hands of the racists bent on terrorizing blacks, but they can restrict the ability of everyone else to defend themselves against deadly attack. A strict law against guns in places of worship would leave black churches defenseless against racist killers (as was lamentably the case in Charleston). We have always stood for the right of black armed self-defense, as we called for in our article on Trayvon Martin.2 More than that, as underscored by this tragic case, and those that came before, it would only be prudent for black people to take the necessary measures to defend themselves in this virulently racist country.

No amount of liberal hand-wringing and pious statements from capitalist politicians calling for unity will stay the murderous hand of the white supremacists. The Confederate battle flag, the banner of the KKK, prominently flying at the South Carolina state capitol is an incitement to racist murder, which the politicians may now finally remove in an effort to cover their tracks. On June 20, hundreds of mainly white demonstrators in a march to “save black lives” protested outside the Confederate Museum in Charleston. But symbolic protests and actions will change little. The “white power” terrorists, Ku Klux Klan, remnants of the White Citizens Councils, neo-Nazis and the rest of their ilk must be smashed to smithereens. Until they are there will be more Dylann Roofs, and more Charleston massacres.

We are paying the price today for the defeat of Black Reconstruction in 1877, when federal troops were withdrawn and the plantation owners and slavers regained political power. Today it is necessary to launch a fight to finish the Civil War the only way possible, by workers revolution. The first step must be to break with the Democratic Party, which upholds the racist status quo and commands the racist police who enforce it. Whether there is a black Democratic mayor in Baltimore or a liberal white Democratic mayor in Charleston makes no difference, because the whole structure of American capitalism, in which since the time of slavery black people are always on the bottom, ensures that African Americans will be the targets of the terror that backs up this bankrupt system.

What a terrible indictment of American “democracy,” that people have to march under the slogan “Black Lives Matter”! But no appeals to the “conscience” of the racist rulers will change the bitter reality that since the days of the Charleston auction block, the only thing about black lives that has ever mattered to this capitalist society is the money it can squeeze out of them. No vague calls for “unity” of black and white people will end the bloodshed. What we need is the unity of black, white, Latino, Asian and immigrant workers in a struggle to abolish the “wage slavery” of capitalism. And to accomplish this we must build a multiracial revolutionary workers party, with black workers in the vanguard. This is the daunting task that the Charleston Massacre places before us.■

  1. 1See “Defend the Charleston Five! Key Battle for Labor Rights and Black Freedom,” The Internationalist No. 10, June 2001. The dramatic story of this international dock workers struggle is told in the book by Suzan Erem and E. Pau. Durrenberger, On the Global Waterfront: The Fight to Free the Charleston 5(Monthly Review Press, 2008).
  2. 2.Workers Revolution Will Avenge Trayvon Martin! The Internationalist, July 2013.

Our Charleston Martyrs

By R. Titta

We will never forget them. We fight for a workers government that will smash the capitalist system, which is founded on racism, slavery, and mass murder.

It is the same system that murdered Denmark Vesey in 1822. He was the founder of the church in Charleston, South Carolina, where our brothers and sisters were massacred. Denmark too fell in the struggle for freedom, almost 200 years ago. But perhaps he understood more about America than many of us do today. That it is a monstrous violent exploiter of human labor, full of pious lies about freedom and equality on top, and all slavery and torture below.

To Denmark, America, with its Jefferson, was nothing but a slave empire, the most horrible thing on earth. Denmark Vesey was going to free his children and friends and sail to Haiti when the degenerate killers of the capitalist system murdered him. He was inspired to rise up by the revolution in Haiti, led by the "Black Jacobins" and Toussaint Louverture.

In the early 19th century, Haiti was the torch of hope and freedom for slaves around the world. And because of that, America has persecuted Haiti from the time of Jefferson to the time of Jefferson's namesake William Jefferson Clinton and his wife. Haiti and Haitians are still being punished for that audacious act of overthrowing the rule of the slaveholders and for the crime of being black in the racist capitalist world. 

We want to turn this whole picture upside-down.