Terror in Charleston: Why Words Matter

This week I finished teaching my summer class: the first half of the U.S. survey. On Tuesday, we talked about John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry as well as his subsequent hanging and martyrdom for the cause of abolition.

During our class discussion, the question of whether John Brown could be considered a terrorist arose. Brown and his comrades fought in the conflicts over whether “Bloody Kansas” would enter the union as slave or free territory, and they killed pro-slavery settlers in Potowatomie. The raid at Harper’s Ferry targeted the armory there: the intent was to secure munitions sufficient to arm a full-scale slave uprising.

Violence for a political cause: my students wondered if this could be considered terrorism. We went back and forth on this for a while, eventually recognizing that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Purposive violence for political ends is called terrorism: when waged by a state it can also be called war, as in the Civil War, the bloodiest war, to date, in American history.

In the midst of our conversation about Brown, a young woman raised her hand and said that she thought the institution of slavery itself was maintained by terror. There was an audible pause in the class. This happens sometimes in class, when a few well-chosen words change the conversation. That is why language is important. When the student used the word “terror” to describe North American chattel slavery, it shifted our attention away from John Brown’s response to slavery to the institution of slavery itself.

Can the conditions that forced thousands of African Americans to labor building this country and creating its wealth be described as terror? Did enslaving this population by kidnapping, torture and murder over the course of over two hundred years constitute a dictionary definition of terrorism: “the use of force or threats to demoralize, intimidate and subjugate”? Sure it did.

Because of their inherent human dignity and preference for freedom, Africans and African Americans only remained enslaved because they were continually terrorized by force and threats. Even these were not enough: enslaved people resisted in myriad ways. Against punishing odds, they created community and aided each other’s survival, ran away, and sometimes, organized armed insurrections.

It is no historical accident that the massacre in Charleston perpetrated by Dylann Roof this week took place in a congregation originally founded by Denmark Vesey, a minister and former slave, who attempted to lead a slave uprising in South Carolina in 1822. After Vesey was hanged, the city of Charleston ordered his congregation disbanded and church was destroyed. There was no Black church in the city for some time after that, until the Morris Brown African Methodist Church was founded after the Civil War, in 1866.

Certainly the Charleston city fathers in the 19th century saw the Black church as harboring potential terrorist threats. And, just as certainly, ongoing assaults on African American religious sanctuaries in the 20th and 21st centuries constitute a component of a larger regime of racialized terror, as Patricia Williams Lessane argues.

A related incident of racial terror occurred here in Wisconsin, with the murder of six worshippers at a Sikh temple in 2012. Surely lethal racial violence in a place of worship is terrorism.

My class on Tuesday also touched on the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which required state and local police in free states to arrest, detain and return African American suspected of being escaped slaves to slave patrols and/or owners. The law included stiff penalties for individuals aiding or abetting suspected runaways, and for police officers who allowed them to escape. In other words, the Fugitive Slave Law created a context for suspecting each and every Black person in free territory of being a fugitive; it discouraged police authorities from believing their stories or helping them.

The Fugitive Slave Law effectively exported the terror of slavery north to free territory; one component of the thousands of ways that the racial terror that structured slavery came to suffuse American society long after emancipation. Teaching this material a scant two months after widespread protests over the police killing of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, it was clear to me and my students that the legacy of slavery and terror is antic today.

Words matter. The murders in Charleston this past week are comprehensible only through a long history of racialized terror. We who get to live on can at least grant the dead that truth.

Terror in Charleston: Why Words Matter

One thought on “Terror in Charleston: Why Words Matter

  1. Wendy Kozol says:

    Thank you for this beautiful statement – it provides an vitally important historical perspective on the ongoing racialized terror in this country


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