Understanding violence in Charleston and in America

As American as Apple Pie


It's the killing season in Charleston, as it is in much of the United States this summer. It happens every year about this time. The gunshots ring through the night. The blue lights flash. The media report another death — usually a young black man — somewhere on America's streets.

I got my introduction to Charleston violence on a sultry August night in 2002, four months after moving here. On that night, 13-year-old Velvet Brown was gunned down on Sumter Street, less than three blocks from my apartment, in a drive-by shooting.

Within days, five witnesses had identified a man named Earl Allen as the shooter, and he was charged and arrested. But when Allen came up for trial 15 months later, the witnesses had recanted their statements, and the prosecutor had no choice but to drop the charges. No one has been tried for the murder of Velvet Brown.

Earl Allen's last 15 minutes of fame came at 2 a.m. on the morning of June 4, 2006, in a burst of gunfire near the corner of Rutledge Avenue and Strawberry Lane, six blocks from the place Velvet Brown died four years before. The man who killed him was awaiting trial on another murder charge.

Most of the murder in Charleston is black-on-black, of course. It scars and traumatizes Charleston and almost every American city. But where does it come from? I got a look into the violent soul of South Carolina in a recent trip to Edgefield, the hometown of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.

In 1856, one George D. Tillman killed a young, unarmed young man named Henry Christian over a faro game in the Planter's Hotel on the town square. Tillman was a member of the state House of Representatives at the time. He served two years for the killing in county jail, where he continued to practice law. The women of the town even brought him his meals. He later served in the state Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

There was also the business of Becky Cotton, "the Devil in Petticoats," who murdered three husbands and was finally dispatched by her own brother, fearing that he might be her next victim.

At least three men were killed in shoot-outs on the Edgefield town square in the 19th century, and when they weren't fighting and killing in front of the courthouse, the men of Edgefield carried their violence with them. Rep. Preston Brooks became a hero of the South in 1856 when he caned and nearly killed Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate chamber. Lt. Gov. James H. Tillman walked out of the Statehouse in Columbia on Jan. 15, 1903, encountered his nemesis Narciso Gonzales, editor of The State newspaper, and shot him to death at the corner of Gervais and Main streets.

I learned this dark history not by digging through county archives and newspapers. It is proudly recorded on murals and historical markers on the town square of Edgefield, where a life-size bronze statue of Thurmond stands.

During the first half of the 19th century, according to one study, rural South Carolina had a murder rate four times as high as that of urban Massachusetts. The rate in Edgefield was thought by one scholar to be perhaps twice that of South Carolina as a whole. Whereas New York City averaged three to seven murders per 100,000 people, Edgefield's antebellum murder rate was estimated at 18 per 100,000 — higher than in any place in modern America.

If violence is as American as apple pie, as Black Panther H. Rap Brown famously said, perhaps it's actually more Southern than American. In his book, All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Fox Butterfield focuses on a young black New York City career criminal and murderer named Willie Bosket. Butterfield traces Bosket's family back five generations to Edgefield County, to an ancestor who was owned by former Gov. Andrew Pickens. He was sold several times and separated from his wife and children. Bosket once saw a relative lynched by a white mob.

The ancestor was violent toward his own family and neighbors, and that violence, Butterfield argues, has passed down from generation to generation. The arrogance and violence of the Southern planter class — whereby a man could be killed for the smallest insult or misunderstanding — was handed down to their slaves and the children of their slaves. We hear echoes of this ancient Southern legacy in the shooting two weeks ago at a local Waffle House in which two people were shot, one fatally. Witnesses say the dispute started over a cigarette.

We are all prisoners of the past, but the past is never over, not for Southerners. We have to live it every day.

Have you seen the dead bunny yet? It's making its way around the internet and is bound to appear on national television, probably on The Daily Show, which seems to relish reporting on the latest madness coming out of the state of South Carolina.

In the days before Easter, an evangelical church in Conway, which calls itself the Rock, sent out postcards to a number of unsuspecting citizens. It carried a photograph of a dead rabbit lying on the side of the road, surrounded by a crushed Easter basket and numerous shattered Easter eggs. The caption read: "Bunnies Stay Dead. Jesus Didn't."

Cute, huh?

The postcard met decidedly mixed reviews from recipients, and the local media hopped on it, launching it on a whole new career that will surely take it far on the internet and beyond. Are you listening, Jon Stewart?

The lead pastor at the Rock is the Rev. Kevin Childs, who defends the mailer, saying that if it brought one person to Jesus this past Easter, it was worth the postage and the ridicule.

I know a little bit about Conway. It's the seat of Horry County, home of Myrtle Beach, the most famous, most visited, most lurid town in South Carolina. And I say that with all fondness. I have visited it many times, and I'm sure there will be many future visits.

My most memorable stay began in 1999 and lasted until 2002. Out of that experience, I wrote a regrettably out-of-print book, Banana Republic: A Year in the Heart of Myrtle Beach, in which I played historian, anthropologist, reporter, and shrink to a city of strip clubs and carousels.

One thing I found intriguing about Myrtle Beach was its public expression of religion. Until fairly recently it was a small Baptist beach town, with all the passions and prejudices that expression carries. In fact, it looked like much of the South Carolina cultural landscape. Then it was carpet bombed by millions of tourists and the billions of dollars they bring, and everything changed.

The culture wars that have wracked the nation in recent years were magnified along the Grand Strand as the Chamber of Commerce and local churches went to war over the future of the town. Nowhere was that clash more vivid than on Easter weekend each year.

Since the mid-1990s, someone has been "crucified" on Ocean Boulevard each year on the Saturday before Easter, compliments of Living Faith Church. The theatrical performance features a faked crucifixion, a crown of thorns, and copious amounts of stage blood. I witnessed it in 1999. There, at the height of spring break, with pickup trucks and SUVs cruising the boulevard, lined up bumber-to-bumper for 30 blocks, packed with drunks and bikini babes, with hip-hop music blaring from every window, the stage was set for the great drama.

To quote from Banana Republic: "Families, couples, drunks, tourists, spring breakers — all stared in stunned disbelief at the writhing, bloody man being 'nailed' to the cross before them. A man grabbed his wife's arm and said, 'Let's get out of here.' At the nearby Florentine Hotel, fraternity boys jeered. Others gasped and sobbed." The good folks from Living Faith Church handed out pamphlets to passersby who were not repelled by the sight.

It's easy to say that the collision of powerful evangelical passions with the hedonism of spring break tourism created this grotesque expression of Christian faith, but some version of the Ocean Boulevard crucifixion has probably occurred in many places over the years in South Carolina and beyond.

As historian David L. Smiley reminds us, Southerners "comprised the largest block of Protestant Christian evangelicals to be found anywhere, and at times that impelled people to attack the alluring temptations of flesh and mind." They also seem to have avoided the temptation of good taste.

The horrific death of Jesus, as depicted in the Gospels, seems to feed into the South's morbid and gothic sensibility. Indeed, it may be the basis for much of that sensibility. While many people see in Jesus a story of comfort and reassurance, of peace and hope, white Southern evangelicals find only a warning of damnation.

In some ways, the ugly picture of the dead rabbit is similar to the "crucified Jesus" on Ocean Boulevard. It is not so much a promise of salvation as a threat of damnation, and it fits comfortably within a traditional white Southern message of fear and conformity in social and political affairs. In the Old South, it was not safe to be racially tolerant, intellectually curious, gay, feminist, or atheist. The warnings were clear, and one pursued such beliefs at his own peril.

I don't know if the folks at the Rock saved any souls with their tasteless little postcard, but somewhere a bunny died for their sins.