33 Counts, 70 Bullets, and A Chilling Confession

Nine-year-old Liam Eller (L), helps a police officer move flowers left behind outside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after the street was re-opened a day after a mass shooting left nine dead during a bible study at the church in Charleston, South Carolina June 18, 2015. A 21-year-old white gunman accused of killing nine people at a historic church was arrested on Thursday, said U.S. officials, who are investigating the attack as a hate crime. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Nine-year-old Liam Eller (L), helps a police officer move flowers left behind outside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina (REUTERS/Brian Snyder).

F.B.I. Agent Michael Stansbury: “Um, look, can you tell us about what happened last night?”

Dylann Storm Roof: “Uh (pauses), well, yeah, I mean, I just, I went to that church in Charleston, and I (pauses)…you know, I…, I did it”

Stansbury: “Did what?”

Roof: (laughs)…1

As a South Carolina native, I have been closely following the outcomes of two racially charged, high profile cases in the Charleston area—the murder of Walter Scott and the Charleston Massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Scott’s case resulted in a hung jury with no final decision for charges filed against Michael Slager, a white North Charleston police officer who reportedly killed Scott, who was unarmed.

Dylann Roof, however, has been found guilty of all 33 charges in the federal case against him (the state case is pending), which includes use of a firearm to commit murder, violations against the Hate Crime Act, and obstruction of the exercise of religion. Whether or not Roof will be sentenced to the death penalty will be determined in the coming weeks. In this case, Roof’s detailed video confession and supplemental written materials affirmed his intent to kill those in attendance at Emanuel AME.

Stansbury: “So you, did you shoot ‘em?”

Roof: “Yes”

Stansbury: “What kind of gun did you use?”

Roof: (laughs) “A Glock .45.”

Roof did not just “shoot ‘em.” He entered the sacred space he had staked out during six previous visits with a large duffel bag carrying an arsenal of ammunition. Each of the 7 magazines, which could hold up to 13 bullets, was filled with 11 bullets to prevent jamming. Once inside the church, he sat with members for over half an hour during Bible Study before unleashing his deadly hatred upon Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Reverend DePayne Middleton, The Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Reverend Daniel Simmons, Sr., Myra Thompson, and Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton as they bowed their heads in prayer. Roof riddled their bodies with 70 of the bullets he had at his disposal.

He intentionally left a survivor—Polly Sheppard—to tell the story of what happened. To make matters worse, had he not been caught, several other black churches throughout the state were on a written list maintained by Roof, and might well have been targeted after welcoming him into their sanctuaries.

Before now, many have asked why Dylan Roof did what he did. In Roof’s chilling confession, we have an even clearer sense of his motives: he made every effort to, in his own words, “agitate race relations” and in so doing, obliterate the existence of black life.

Roof: “…I just, I just finally decided I had to do it, and that’s pretty much it.”

Stansbury: “Well, well that, that goes to my next question, why did you have to do it?”

Roof: “Oh, I had to do it.”

Stansbury: “How come? Um that’s what I don’t know.”

Roof: “Uh, well, I had to do it, because (pauses) somebody had to do something. Because you know black people are killing white people every day on the streets and they rape, they rape white women, 100 white women a day, that’s a FBI statistic from 2005, yeah that’s ten years ago…”

Roof’s confession is striking for his matter-of-fact tone, his cool demeanor, the ways his laughter peppered his admission to murder, his skewing of ‘facts’ about black violence, and his stringing together of anti-black rhetoric and white supremacist views.

Many, including South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, believe that by being found guilty of all 33 charges, justice is being served quite handily to Roof. And yet, I am struck in this moment by how Roof’s confession fits in a larger, longer American history, and how it is a reminder of the legacies of white supremacy—both explicit and implicit—that continue to haunt us.

At AAIHS, we have been paying a lot of attention to what has unfolded in Charleston over the past year. In June, blogger Keisha Blain collaborated with Chad Williams and Kidada Williams to create the #Charlestonsyllabus, a list of readings on race, racism, and racial violence that appears on this site. In addition to the #Charlestonsyllabus, we featured my reflection, #prayforcharleston, on the blog only days after the shooting. We have also been calling out white supremacy’s deep roots on American soil. Earlier this year, Blain reminded us of the importance of remembering this particular act of hate as it was directed toward black women, men, and children who worshipped in a black church. In “Why We Must Remember,” she compels us to “confront the unsettling history of racism and racial violence in the United States.” Relatedly, in a recent post entitled “On the Persistence of White Supremacy,” Crystal Fleming grappled with our tumultuous political climate, and warns us of the “double tragedy” of ignoring the ways white supremacy and systematic racism go hand in hand.

I too am struck by Roof’s explicit white supremacist tome, which is stunning for its unapologetic rhetoric. It is also startling because when we pay close attention, Roof’s confession is indicative of what hides behind the masquerades of civility, political correctness, disingenuous forms of white liberal feminism, and other modes of being that are riddled with racism, bigotry, and other divisive machinations. In all of this, I am reminded of the ways that broad, collective silences about systematic racism do nothing more than uphold the racist ideals Roof enacted when he entered Mother Emanuel.

  1. United States Attorney’s Office, accessed via The New York Times
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Rhon Manigault-Bryant

LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College. She is the author of Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women (Duke University Press), and co-author of Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions (Palgrave Macmillan) with Tamura A. Lomax and Carol B. Duncan. You can find her adding colorful commentary to the digital universe via Twitter @DoctorRMB.