RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., is holding services today for the first time since nine of its members were shot and killed Wednesday night. The church itself has been a sanctuary from violence against African-Americans for hundreds of years. But the church known as Mother Emanuel by many does not stand alone as a target. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's Code Switch team looked into the long history of violence visited upon black churches.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Around the nation, people mourning the massacre at Emanuel AME Church are asking why. In many black churches this morning, they're asking a slightly different question - why again?
VALERIE COOPER: There's a long and bloody history.
BATES: Valerie Cooper is an associate professor of black church studies at Duke University. She says before and during the Civil Rights Movement, church gatherings were an easy target for whites who wanted to intimidate black citizens with violence.
COOPER: Arsons, bombings, attacks upon religious leaders.
BATES: And even children. In September 1963, Birmingham's 16h Street Baptist Church was bombed. Four little girls were killed. The Rev. Carolyn McKinstry was a member of that congregation and remembers the day.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MARCH TO JUSTICE")
REV CAROLYN MCKINSTRY: I heard the rumble or the thunder and the explosion. And I heard the glass come crashing in. And someone said hit the floor. And right here, I fell on the floor. Everyone in the church just fell on the floor. And it was deathly quiet.
BATES: That's Rev. McKinstry in the documentary "March To Justice." And while the nation was shocked at the children's murders, Rev. McKinstry told NBC News the local black community in her city was used to the attacks aimed at them, so much so that the city's nickname had become "Bombingham."
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MCKINSTRY: The church bombing was just one of many. In fact, the records say 80 bombings had occurred by the time we had the church bombing.
BATES: Even in the midst of the danger, churches were the logical place for black gatherings during the Civil Rights Movement explains activist Dorie Ladner.
DORIE LADNER: All of our meetings were held in churches because that was the largest space and the safest space. We didn't have any large auditoriums or coliseums or schools that we could meet at so the church was it.
BATES: Ladner grew up in Hattiesburg, Miss., and during the 1960s helped organize voter registration efforts with several groups, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or SNCC. Ladner says there were many church bombings in her home state during the early '60s. Most didn't garner national media attention, but one did.
LADNER: That church in Philadelphia, Miss., was a ploy.
BATES: Mt. Zion Methodist Church burned in June 1964 at the beginning of what became known as Freedom Summer. Dorie Ladner recalled she'd been at a civil rights training session in Ohio with organizers Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and student volunteer and Andrew Goodman when they heard the news. The men went south to investigate.
LADNER: And I remember very vividly going to the station wagon to wave them goodbye.
BATES: The burnt skeleton of Schwerner's station wagon would be discovered in the woods a few days later. In August, the three men's bodies found buried in an earthen dam. After decades of relative quiet, a spate of black church burnings, most of them in the south, made national news in the 1990s. Historic Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, S.C., was burned in 1990. In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton spoke at the dedication of the rebuilt church.
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BILL CLINTON: I pledge to you I will do everything I can to prosecute those responsible for the rash of church burnings, to prevent future incidents, to help communities to rebuild, but Americans must lead the way.
BATES: Now, more than 20 years later, the specter of the Charleston massacre gives rise to fresh worries that black churches may again become targets of violence. Duke's Valerie Cooper says one of the hallmarks of the black church is that it opens its doors to all comers without question. The attack on a Wednesday night prayer meeting, she says, affected the church's most deeply faithful believers who had unwittingly welcomed an apparent assassin into their circle.
COOPER: For this young man to breach that wall of hospitality with violence makes this crime more than obscene.
BATES: Still, if history is any guide, Cooper believes black churches will endure because they can continue to offer their parishioners something not found anywhere else.
COOPER: They are sanctuaries. They are holy places. They're places for worship. But they're also places of refuge. They're places where it is safe to be black, where blackness is celebrated.
BATES: And today also mourned and remembered. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.