The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee, on gun violence and racial hatred:
It has been more than 50 years since Ku Klux Klansmen planted a bomb in the basement of the predominantly black 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The church had served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders.
Just before Sunday services on the morning of Sept. 15, 1963, that bomb exploded, killing four young girls and injuring many more church members. In an era in which white supremacists were determined to maintain racial segregation by any means necessary, the murder of those four girls helped shape a national consciousness that deplored such violence and increased support of civil rights for African-Americans.
In Charleston, South Carolina, Wednesday night, authorities said a young man, who espoused white supremacist ideology, entered another predominantly African-American church that has a long and glorious history in the fight for equal rights and civil rights, and sat through an hour of Bible study before he fatally shot nine people, including church pastor Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, who also was a state senator.
The question America has to ask itself now is whether this nation has the courage and will to use this tragic event in a house of peace to have a serious discussion about gun violence and racial hatred.
The massacre occurred at the historic, 200-year-old Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, said to be the oldest black church in the South.
Fourteen hours later, thanks to a tip from an alert citizen, Dylann Roof, 21, was arrested in a traffic stop in North Carolina, about 220 miles north of Charleston.
It apparently had not been determined late Thursday if Roof was affiliated with any hate group. However, a relative of one of the survivors said the shooter told the victims: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”
As expected, gun control advocates and opponents have weighed in on the massacre.
President Barack Obama, commenting on the incident, justifiably said Thursday, “I’ve had to make statements like this too many times. We don’t have all of the facts, but we do know that once again innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”
We realize that anything we say in this space is not going to change the minds of most gun rights advocates. However, we can fairly say that easy access to firearms makes it easier for hate-filled or insane people to inflict horrendous carnage on people they consider enemies. We also are aware of the toll gun violence is wreaking in America’s inner cities.
Beyond that debate, though, the massacre at Emanuel AME Church could be a watershed moment, a turning point in the never-ending debate about race relations similar to the change wrought in America’s consciousness sparked by the Birmingham church bombing.
As a Charleston resident said Thursday, “This is a tremendous opportunity to come together and say we’re not going to tolerate this anymore.”