On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a young white man, murdered nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina “to save America.”
On October 29, 1917, Percy Copeland, a young black man, pledged his life to the United States by enlisting in the U.S. Army “to save America.”
What story in their minds moved their hearts to act?
Dylann Roof was welcomed into the church and seated before he slaughtered nine people and injured another. No confrontation provoked his assault. Evidence proved Roof’s assault was premeditated with intent to send a message of terror, hate and intimidation to those whose skin color differed from his own.
Roof pleaded innocent in the realm of law, not the realm of mores. Pleading innocence is not unusual. Consequences for even the most heinous crimes are negotiated in court. During the trial, Roof’s attorney searched for some basis in law that supported an argument of innocence. He tried anything that would stick: insanity, self-defense or even a discombobulated argument about the separation of church and state.
But as his attorney dealt out these arguments, Roof expressed a sense of honor in the crime he committed. He said he believed black Americans were “raping our women and are taking over our country.” He said: “I felt like I had to do it, and I still feel like I had to do it.”
In the end, Roof and his attorney failed. Roof was sentenced to death on January 11, 2017, and subsequently negotiated a life sentence without parole.
As horribly gripping as Roof’s crimes were, my attention was drawn to the powerful story buried deep within him that justified such acts. What facts were dismissed in favor of this story?
In the GQ article, A Most American Terrorist: The Making Of Dylann Roof, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah investigated facts and context surrounding Roof’s family, friends, childhood acquaintances and even his teachers and elementary school principal. Absolutely nothing supported the idea that he should kill or more specifically, kill defenseless black Americans.
His confused and anguished father, Bennett Roof, said: “I don’t know what happened, I just know that the boy wasn’t raised that way.” His mother, Amelia Roof, described how his best childhood friend was black and how they played well together.
Roof was consistently described by those who knew him as a slow learner and ninth-grade dropout who was poor and alone. Although there were no facts that supported Roof’s actions, there were stories. Stories from the internet supported his conspiracy about black Americans and the idea of white supremacy.
Percy Copeland served Company L of the 369th squadron in the infantry of the U.S. Army — the Harlem Hell Fighters. The Harlem Hell Fighters were infantry soldiers that fought under the French flag because they were rejected by the United States due to their race.
There is no compelling story about Copeland. He just lived a simple life. He was married with seven children. He returned home severely wounded from the war. From the time of his honorable discharge until his death, there is no evidence of terrorist activity, protesting, advocacy or any behavior of hatred towards whites or the United States of America.
Copeland’s wife, Irene Thornton, died in early 1938. Disabled and alone, Copeland and his seven children, Robert, Calvin, Irving, Gloria, Irene, Percy, and Margaret moved from his home in Washington, D.C., to his father’s home in King George, Virginia. Within the year, he fell ill and required medical help.
His father, Henry, carried him by horse-and-carriage to the train station, passing several hospitals that served only whites. Copeland died on December 24, 1938, en route to Freedmen’s Hospital, the closet hospital that provided care to black Americans.
The seven children, now orphaned, were separated to live with other relatives near and far. Years passed before Copeland’s children would see each other again. The loss and systemic trauma would affect Copeland’s children and their children for years to come.
The consistent fact during Copeland’s life was that America did not view him, or black Americans who served in the military, as equals. America never acknowledged the bravery of the Harlem Hell Fighters. There were no national memorials, movies or celebrations for them. The Harlem Hell Fighters were fighting under a foreign flag for a country that did not care about them. Copeland was wounded fighting for the story of equality, freedom and a shared vision of America.
My father was Irving, one of Copeland’s seven children. I don’t think my father resolved the pain. When I saw him greet his siblings, there were no warm embraces. When my aunts and uncles got together, I got a sense they were thinking: “I’m glad to see you. Now what do we do?” My father didn’t know how to process losing both of his parents at age 12.
I never met my grandmother. There isn’t even a marker for her grave. And I never met my grandfather. I didn’t find out how they died until later in my life. I was raised with the story that everyone had an equal shot if they worked hard, did the right thing and were kind to others. The facts say otherwise.
Do facts really make a difference? Or is it the story that gives meaning and allows us to live with the reality that fairness is an illusion? Or maybe it’s not a story at all, but an emotion with meaning imputed, making it almost impossible to explain clearly and rationally why we do what we do.
Dylann Roof, and many like him, have chosen to invest in the story that they must save America. He had to invest in a story: there is simply not a factual way to view the concept of a superior race, a divinely endorsed bloodline and the exclusive connection to God.
Percy Copeland, and many like him, have chosen the story that they must save America. This is also not a factual way to view demonstrating acts of courage to earn acceptance.
Based on the facts, Roof should not have committed those crimes. Based on the facts, the descendants of Copeland should be the aggressors: wreaking havoc, destroying and creating bedlam. Yet here I am, calmly writing this essay, choosing another story.
The truth about facts is that facts are hard to understand. Facts cut across our idea of truth. Facts undermine our story. Facts don’t allow us to connect dots. Often, the facts are facts we don’t want to understand. Facts are useful only to support our irrational stories.
The facts about the truth are that everyone has a story and unfortunately, we can’t escape it. The absence of being intentional about realizing our story does not absolve us from the question: “What is your vision of America?” Is it a country of “We the People,” or “Only our People?”
Regardless of the facts, a story is based on how you need to see the world — how you see the world for yourself, your loved ones and friends.
Truth is not what was, but what is, acceptable. Truth is a projection of what your story needs to be, whether it represents the past or future.
As for me, a belief in the inferiority of others is not my story, or my reality.