Amid 2 Murder Trials, A South Carolina City Reflects On Racial History

Dec 11, 2016
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It's a difficult time in Charleston, S.C. The federal hate crimes trial of accused church shooter Dylann Roof has revealed disturbing racial motivations. Prosecutors played his video confession in which Roof admitted to killing nine worshippers at Emanuel AME Church because they were black. This case comes on the heels of another racially charged case in the city involving a high-profile police shooting. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Dylann Roof's federal death penalty case started just two days after a hung jury in Michael Slager's murder trial. He's the white former police officer who shot a black man as he was running away from a traffic stop.

JAMES JOHNSON: And everybody in the city is on the edge right now because of the two trial.

ELLIOTT: James Johnson is president of the National Action Network, a civil rights group in Charleston. He says both cases belie deeper issues.

JOHNSON: You know, we - as people here in Charleston, we got on national news and said, you know, we all come together. We pray together and sing "Kum Ba Yah." But we still have a race relationship problem here in Charleston also.

ELLIOTT: This story of race here is as old as America. Charleston was the center of the slave trade.

JEFF NEALE: Along the Ashley River in the 18th and 19th century, you're looking at approximately about about 20 plantations along this river.

ELLIOTT: Jeff Neale is a living history interpreter at Middleton Place, a national historic landmark just outside Charleston. On a rainy morning, he shows me around the site, once a plantation owned by a prominent colonist. He says over about a 200-year span, the Middleton family owned some 3,500 slaves. Exhibits here tell their story, too.

NEALE: There's Quaco, the blacksmith, Caesar, the carpenter, John Baptist, the bricklayer - some very highly skilled people here.

ELLIOTT: Evidence shows Dylann Roof posing for pictures at one of the main ports of entry for enslaved Africans. He lived outside Columbia but chose a historic black church in Charleston for impact. Twenty-four-year-old Jamal Hall is the interpretive blacksmith at Middleton Place, showing what work would be like for slaves here. It's his first job out of college. He's traced his ancestors to slaves in York, S.C. From a freedman cabin on the property near the chicken coop, Hall says he's pessimistic about how justice is playing out.

JAMAL HALL: There is kind of a different set of rules for white people than there is for black people.

ELLIOTT: He questions why Walter Scott was shot to death running away after being stopped for a broken taillight yet Dylann Roof was captured alive as a suspect for killing nine people in a church.

HALL: It kind of stems back to Jim Crow and even back to slavery really.

ELLIOTT: Prosecutors say they will put Michael Slager on trial again in the Scott killing. Hall doesn't think it matters.

HALL: (Laughter) There ain't going to be no justice with that. I'll be honest with you. Ever since George Zimmerman got off for shooting Trayvon Martin, I just don't believe in it.

NEALE: Well, I'll have to admit I'm probably a little optimistic than him.

ELLIOTT: Jeff Neale thinks another jury might reach a different verdict. His view is that race relations have improved over time through individual relationships. Another trial is important, he says.

NEALE: He as a police officer should be held at a higher account for what he did.

ELLIOTT: But first, Dylann Roof will be held to account in his federal hate crimes trial. For Jamal Hall, the Emanuel massacre is a new chapter in a long history.

HALL: Like, it didn't come out of nowhere (laughter) yeah, you know? It's not just, you know, Dylann Roof just decided, you know oh, I hate black people. I'm going to shoot up all them. No, this was - this was here long before Dylann Roof. This was here long before Michael Slager. You know, there's always been this hatred.

ELLIOTT: As the city continues to grapple with these difficult issues, more of Dylann Roof's motivations will be on display in federal court this week. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Charleston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.