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Issue #1690      June 24, 2015

To Mother Emanuel’s Denmark Vesey: your fight goes on

Fighting off racist attacks is nothing new for the 199-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. – lovingly referred to by many in Charleston as “Mother Emanuel.”

The church which was the scene of hateful slaughter on Wednesday night has a long history of resisting slavery and racism and of fighting for justice.

Mother Emanuel was founded by Morris Brown, a black pastor in 1816.  People in white-run Methodist and Episcopal churches down South didn’t care to worship too much with black people - thus, the separate churches.

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at Mother Emanuel in 1962.

In 1969 Coretta Scott King led a march of hospital workers demanding better pay – a march that began on the front steps of Mother Emanuel.

In its early years though, one of the leaders of the church was Denmark Vesey, a former slave who had been able to buy his freedom with the $1,500 winnings from a Charleston lottery.

In 1822, however, the church was burned to the ground by the white landed aristocrats because it was seen as a hotbed of support for what was on its way to becoming one of the biggest slave revolts ever in the pre-Civil War South.

Vesey was the lead planner of a slave revolt that was to begin on the night of June 16, 1822 as the clock ticked past the 12th hour and into June 17, the next day. (Was that timing lost on Mr Roof as, on the June 17, 2015, he murdered nine people in that church after having been welcomed by them into their prayer service?)

Had the elaborately-planned slave revolt of June 17, 1822 actually occurred, including the mass escape to Haiti which had already freed its slaves, it would have been one of the biggest slave revolts in the history of the pre-Civil War South. The plans leaked out, however, and the revolt was quashed.

The timing of the mass murder this week may not have been lost on the killer but the reasons Vesey had for planning a slave revolt were totally lost on the judge who sentenced him to death.

The judge who ordered his execution is reported to have said: “It is difficult to imagine what infatuation could have prompted you to attempt an episode so wild and visionary. You were a free man, comely, wealthy and enjoyed every comfort compatible with your station. You had, therefore, much to risk and little to gain.”

Today, in the streets of Charleston and in the newspapers, columns, radio shows, TV shows and on line, the name of Vesey is coming up again. No one remembers the name of the judge who ordered his execution. But Vesey’s name they remember. Many invoking his name today are understanding better than they did before why it was that he organised that slave revolt.

A community organiser outside the church in Charleston on the night of the killings put it this way: “I’m sick and tired of people telling me that I shouldn’t be angry. I am angry.”

People’s World

Next article – Film Review – The Emperor’s New Clothes

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