The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Facebook photo, suspected Charleston shooter wears flags of racist regimes in Africa

Here’s a look at the alleged gunman's background, including recent arrests, and what authorities say happened inside the church. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Dylann Roof, the white man identified as the suspected gunman in Wednesday night's mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., is said to have declared, "You are taking over our country," before opening fire on Emanuel AME Church's black congregants, killing nine.

Roof's apparent Facebook profile photo carries a possible indicator of his racist worldview. The picture shows Roof skulking in the woods, wearing a jacket with at least two conspicuous patches. The patches, as the Southern Poverty Law Center quickly noted, are the old flags of racist, white-minority regimes in southern Africa.

The flag on top is South Africa's first national flag, adopted in 1928. It sets a number of British and Dutch colonial insignia within an old royal flag of the Netherlands, the ancestral homeland of many of South Africa's white Afrikaners. After the end of apartheid and the creation of a new South African flag, the apartheid-era flag became an emblem for white supremacists around the world, including in the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The green-and-white flag beneath it on Roof's jacket belongs to the rogue Republic of Rhodesia, which unilaterally declared its independence from Britain in 1965. The regime, locked in a bloody struggle with black nationalist guerrilla groups, was eventually forced to concede to a biracial democracy. In 1980, Robert Mugabe, one of the guerrilla leaders, was elected prime minister of the country, now named Zimbabwe.

Though it's obvious to us now that both these racist, white-minority governments were on the wrong side of history, they commanded conspicuous support in the West at the time of their rule. This included tacit backing from Washington, which saw white rule in southern Africa as a bulwark against Soviet interests in the Cold War.

It took concerted activism, protests and boycotts to change political opinions at the time and force sanctions on these countries.

For white supremacists, apartheid South Africa and renegade Rhodesia also possibly offer a cautionary tale of what happens when whites relinquish their dominance. Under Mugabe's three decades of rule, many white farmers were forced to surrender their lands to black tenants.

Ian Smith, the late former prime minister of breakaway Rhodesia and an implacable racist, clung to his bigoted belief that the continent was better off under white tutelage.

"I'm pleasantly surprised at the number of people who come to me and say, 'When you were in the chair, we thought you were too inflexible and unbending; we now see that you were right,'" he told a reporter in 2004.

Unsettled by the new democratic status quo, hundreds of thousands of whites have left southern Africa in the past two decades.

The flags on Roof's jacket can be read as misguided emblems of grievance.

See also

The Post's live coverage of the Charleston church massacre

The ugly truth about hate crimes in America

One photo that captures the U.S.'s relationship with guns