For me, the echoes of that picture reverberated back nearly six years, to the day my mom — Ethel Lee Lance — was shot and killed while praying in Charleston’s Mother Emanuel Church along with eight other Black Americans, including two of my cousins and one of my close childhood friends. In the months leading up to that tragic day, my mom’s killer posed for pictures with the Confederate flag, sometimes even slinging it over his shoulder just like that insurrectionist in the Capitol did.
The similarities between these two days don’t end there: Both days ended in deaths, both attacks were perpetrated (at least in part) by white supremacists chasing a lost cause, and tragically, the perpetrators of both incidents were carrying more than just flags. My mother’s killer was armed with a handgun; the Capitol insurrectionists were armed with enough live ammunition to shoot every member of the House and Senate five times.
This deadly connection between white supremacy and guns runs throughout our history. In 1866, armed Confederate loyalists stormed the Louisiana Constitutional Convention, murdering 34 Black Americans in an attempt to block suffrage for freed slaves. In 1898, an armed White mob in Wilmington, N.C., proclaimed a “White Declaration of Independence,” then killed at least 60 residents before replacing the multiracial local government with white supremacists. In 1921, mobs of armed White residents of Tulsa attacked the Black neighborhood of Greenwood, murdering as many as 300 Tulsans for the crime of being Black and successful. In 1955, Emmett Till was tortured and shot in the head by White vigilantes. And today, mass shootings – from the church in Charleston to the supermarket in El Paso to the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. — have been committed by white supremacists filled with hate and armed with a gun.
Simply put, if the Confederate flag is the primary symbol of white-supremacist hate, the gun is its deadliest weapon.
We have begun, as a nation, to slowly address the problem of the Confederate battle flag. NASCAR recently banned it from events, Mississippi recently removed it from the state’s flag, and more prohibitions are hopefully on the horizon. My own story is an example of that incremental progress: The traitorous flag that flew over the South Carolina Capitol the day Mom was murdered was finally taken down a month later, after nationwide outrage.
But the truth is that taking down symbols of hate means very little unless we also disarm people who are inspired by them — and on that front, our nation has lagged woefully behind. We’ve failed to pass any significant federal gun-safety bill in the past 25 years; we’ve allowed armed extremists to brandish long guns at state capitols and intimidate peaceful protesters, and our background-check system remains riddled with gaps and loopholes. One of those gaps, now called the “Charleston loophole,” led directly to the death of my mom by allowing her killer to purchase a gun he was legally prohibited from owning.
So I share my story today, alongside other members of the Everytown Survivor Network, during National Gun Violence Survivors Week, to ask that as we reckon with hate in America, we also take action to disarm it.
I’m a reverend, so I promise that nobody appreciates your thoughts and prayers more than I do, but they are not enough unless they are paired with meaningful action. That action must come first and foremost from our leaders, beginning with the Biden-Harris administration, but in truth the responsibility to advocate for gun safety extends to all of us. Because if we do not come together around this issue now, in the weeks after our very democracy was held at gunpoint, then I fear that hate-motivated gun violence will not only continue but also accelerate.
That leaves us with a choice. The photographs I described above — of the Confederate flag in the Capitol and in the hands of my mother’s killer — capture the history of gun violence and hate in America better than I ever could. But it’s important to remember that they are a picture of our past. If we so choose, we can stop them from being a preview of our future.