On the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylann Storm Roof, a young white man, entered Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, invited in by the African American parishioners. For an hour he sat among them during a Wednesday night Bible study session as they read from the Book of Mark. And then he opened fire, ranting racist invective as he shot, and shot, and shot. Within minutes, nine Emanuel church members—including Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, the church’s pastor and a state senator—were dead. The ensuing manhunt for Roof and investigation of his motives revealed his white supremacist beliefs and reopened debates about racial conflict, southern identity, systemic racism, civil rights, and the African American church as an institution.
In the aftermath of the massacre, Professors Chad Williams, Kidada Williams, and Keisha Blain sought a way to put the murder—and the subsequent debates about it in the media—in the context of America’s tumultuous history of race relations instead of treating it as an isolated event that lacked a lineage. On June 19, they created the #CharlestonSyllabus hashtag on Twitter, using it to link to scholarly works on the myriad issues related to the murder. The hashtag was modeled on a similar idea created after Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. By the end of that day, thousands of people were linking #CharlestonSyllabus to scholarly monographs, op-eds, well-researched essays, and original documents, complicating and clarifying what was being said in the media and around the dinner table.
The African American Intellectual History Society began collating all of the texts into a formal, annotated bibliography that was updated continually for weeks afterward. During the first week after the murders, Lisa Bayer (University of Georgia Press director) and I pondered ways to create a usable print version of the online syllabus. We wanted a book that would live on after the furor over the Emanuel AME Church massacre had died down. So, too, did the syllabus’s founders.
Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism, and Racial Violence was conceived in a single whirlwind conference call. Williams, Williams, and Blain agreed to select the best essays and book excerpts from #CharlestonSyllabus; the press agreed to gather the permissions necessary to reprint these pieces in a single volume. The texts span the gamut of American history, from colonial times to the present. In one place, the book collects a who’s who of thinkers on American race relations; notable figures include A. Phillip Randolph, Claudia Rankine, Michael Eric Dyson, Douglas Egerton, Harriet Jacobs, Marcus Garvey, Fannie Lou Hamer, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, and President Barack Obama. A truly interdisciplinary collection, Charleston Syllabus also includes song lyrics, official court testimony, and original documents. If a student, teacher, or otherwise interested person wants to understand America’s long, complicated legacy of race relations, Charleston Syllabus serves as a key foundational text.
Early in our conversations, we realized that the book would need to somehow give back to the communities affected by the murders. We decided that a portion of Charleston Syllabus’s royalties will go to the Lowcountry Ministries Fund, an initiative of the Palmetto Project and the City of Charleston. The Palmetto Project is a social justice program originally started by Rev. Pinckney.
Charleston Syllabus will be published in May 2016, as a commemoration of the first year anniversary of the massacre. The publication of Charleston Syllabus was made possible, in part, by the Sarah Mills Hodge Fund.
This essay was originally published in Inside UGA Press issue no. 16.