52 Years After Birmingham, the Charleston Shooting Shows Just How Far America Has Come

52 Years After Birmingham, the Charleston Shooting Shows Just How Far America Has Come
Source: AP
Source: AP

Racial terror against black people in America is not a thing of the past.

In his comments to the media this afternoon, President Barack Obama noted that last night's shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, "raises questions about a dark part of [America's] history" — referring to historical incidents in which black churches were targeted for attacks by white supremacists.

Indeed, there is historical precedent here: Fifty-two years ago, in September 1963, four Ku Klux Klan members detonated a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls and galvanizing civil rights advocates across the country. This attack has since been enshrined as emblematic of America's violent Jim Crow past — a time to which we, presumably, never wish to return.

Yet here we are again. A 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof is accused of murdering nine people at an evening Bible study class in another historically black Southern church. The parallels to Birmingham are chilling, adding — as Obama indicated — to a pattern of targeted violence against black places of worship.

That such attacks have functioned as "strategic [terrorism] meant to send a stinging message to black communities" is significant, writes Mic's Darnell Moore. "Black churches have long been targeted by white racial supremacists because they tend to serve as the political and organizing base within black communities."

Obama's implication that such violence hearkens to a darker chapter in our history still misses a key point: This is not old history. This is America today.

The reality of anti-black violence is both immediate and tangible for millions of black people across the United States. Demonstrators have been in the streets consistently since at least August 2014, demanding justice around this very fact and devoting many of their resources to combating racist police violence. 

Such targeted brutality has taken many forms of late: Police killings, mass incarceration and legalized discrimination like "Stop and Frisk" are just three contemporary examples. All point to the conclusion that the deliberate or de facto targeting of black people is no relic of a bygone era: It's a founding value with which America never truly parted ways.

To suggest otherwise, and to relegate this idea of widespread anti-black violence to the mid-20th century and before, is a convenient denial of facts. Before now, the Birmingham church bombing served as one of the major turning points in the struggle for black equality. But now, Charleston is happening. The body count is even more horrifying than its predecessor. And its occurrence during an era presumed so much more racially progressive than the early 1960s begs a reckoning with how far we've truly come in terms of race relations.

When will we, as Americans, concede that we may not be so far along the path to racial equity as we like to believe? And when will we admit that the nation we were in 1963 is actually not so different from the one we are in 2015?