Calendar photo caption: During a prayer vigil in Washington, D.C., on June 19, 2015, congregants of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, hold photographs of the nine people killed at "Mother Emanuel" during Bible study. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
The Black church has long been central to Black culture in America, a symbol of independence, social uplift, liberation, strength, and revolution. During the Civil Rights Movement, protests like the Montgomery Bus Boycott were organized at Black churches.
That made Black churches a target for white fear, anger, and violence. On September 15, 1963, white men fire-bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the largest Black church in Birmingham. Alabama, murdering four young Black girls. By the late 1990s, at least 80 Black churches throughout the South had been burned, fire-bombed, or vandalized.
The targeting of Black churches dates back to the 19th century. In 1822, after Denmark Vesey was executed for planning a rebellion of enslaved people in Charleston, South Caroline, white residents burned down the African Methodist Episcopal Church where Vesey had preached about freedom.
Two centuries later, on June 17, 2015, a white gunman motivated by white supremacy entered the rebuilt "Mother Emanuel" and opened fire on a Bible study group, killing nine Black worshippers, including the church's senior pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
Racially motivated attacks still target the Black church today. Over 10 days in spring 2019, arson attacks in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, destroyed three historically Black churches that had been essential centers of the Black community for more than a century.
Despite facing unrelenting violence, the Black church persists, inspiring and holding up people engaged in the struggle for racial equality.