The first shots of the American Civil War were fired in Charleston, South Carolina in April of 1861. Over 160 years later, another series of gunshots has put the city of Charleston back on the national stage. The city made headlines after Dylann Roof, a Charleston native and white supremacist, shot and killed nine people attending Bible study in Emanuel AME church.
While the Civil War is long past, the racism that permeated the “Old South” has clearly not yet been buried. The youth of Charleston, however, are already fighting back. After a white police officer gunned down an unarmed black man named Walter Scott in early April in South Carolina, College of Charleston (CofC) student Ansley Pope and three others put up a human road block on the Ravenel bridge—one of the city’s key transportation routes—to raise awareness about the depth of the racial issues in their area.
“The South is very much still deeply rooted in white supremacy and racism,” explains Pope. “I felt like people needed the space to disrupt the narrative that people just unknowingly navigate in the South. We had been planning the bridge action for a while. When the Walter Scott case happened…we felt like we needed to quickly mobilize.”
The disruption caused a major traffic hold up for Charlestonians and got the four students thrown in jail.
“In order for social change to happen you need to agitate, educate, motivate, and organize people,” Pope said. “That act of civil disobedience agitated a lot of people. Within that action we were able to motivate and organize a lot of young black leaders within the Charleston community. We woke people up.”
Ansley is not alone in the fight to overcome racism in the city. Other youth in Charleston have recognized the problems in the area and have developed their own methods of taking a stand. Brandon Chapman, Treasurer of the Black Student Union (BSU) at CofC, believes the answer isn’t in the magnitude of spectacle, rather it lies in unity. “We need to get young people together,” he explains, “The driving force in the civil rights movement was young people. I think we need a coalition of people who want to stand up for what is right. If we have strong numbers, we can get more work done.”
The problem isn’t generational. Dylann Roof is 21 years old. It is clear that racism is not only alive, but present in the younger generations with deadly force. The bitterness against blacks following the Civil War, most apparent in the oppressive Jim Crow laws—a set of laws segregating blacks and whites in transportation, education, marriage, and other areas of daily life—has had rippling effects lasting to the present day.
Roof’s shootings revealed a largely ignored 21st century brand of racism that exists below the surface, Chapman argues.
“People think we’re a post racial society,” Chapman said, “but in reality we’re not. Nobody wants to talk about race, which is more dangerous than overt racism. When it’s out in the open it’s easier to attack.”
Charleston is now a different world than it was even in the 1960s, particularly following the Civil Rights movement. However, the city is visually indicative of a by-gone era. Nearly every corner of Charleston has some memorial ode to the Confederate fight against the North, including statues of slave owning statesmen, preserved plantations where blacks labored for centuries, and forts that once defended the port city through which thousands of slaves were inventoried and bartered. Part of the problem, Pope claims, is that Charleston has forgotten integral pieces of its past.
“No one talks about how ‘We shall overcome‘ was actually started in Charleston at the tobacco worker’s strike in the 50’s,” Pope said, referring to one of the key slogans of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s, “What stories is the South prioritizing when it comes to black people? How is Charleston actually showing that black lives matter?” he added.
Charleston is no stranger to anti-racist youth activism. In April of 1960, 24 black students from the local Burke High School performed a sit in at a whites-only diner in the heart of downtown Charleston.
Dylann Roof proved with a few bullets that Charleston has poorly discerned the extent to which it still harbors the mindset of a former slave state. However, as the victims of the shooting are buried Friday, the youth of Charleston will continue to dig a mass grave for the remnants of racism in the region.
The Charleston of yesterday is where the war over slavery began. The Charleston of today is where some young people are working to see an end to racism. The shots that cut through the tropical serenity of the southern port city may have led to the end of slavery in the United States, but the gunshots that silenced nine black lives last week may create a counter attack among the city’s youth potent enough to silence their message for good.
“I see the shift changing,” Pope explains, “It’s just how quickly it ia going to change. It’s sad to think that 9 black people in a church had to die before people said, ‘Black lives really do matter.’”