Thirty-five springs ago in the U.S. South, fire was a favored weapon and churches a prime target of white supremacists opposing civil
rights for black Americans. On May 14, 1961, a firebomb hurled from a
white mob burned out a Greyhound bus bound for the Alabama capital of Montgomery with “Freedom Riders”—
blacks and whites challenging racial segregation. The passengers fled the flames through shattered windows. A week later, a white throng stoned a Montgomery church where blacks were gathered to hear Martin Luther King Jr. preach passive resistance. National guardsmen finally rescued the civil rights leader and his audience the next day. At that time, the torching of churches was widespread, striking at the political heart and spiritual soul of black communities. Now, the burning of more than 30 black churches over 18 months in nine southern states—two in Texas only last week—has set off official alarms and a scurry of activity in Washington. Stating that “racial hostility is the driving force behind a number of these incidents,” President Bill Clinton said the spate of fires “hearkens back to a dark era in our nation’s history.”
So far, police have uncovered racial motives in only two of the arson cases. They have turned up no evidence of any wide conspiracy that links the nighttime burnings of mainly small-town churches. In many cases, local authorities cite random vandalism or incendiary efforts to conceal burglary. After a fire on June 6 in a church annex in Charlotte, S.C., police arrested “a very troubled” 13-year-old white girl and checked hints of a satanist connection. In Greenville, Tex., the fire chief described two church blazes on June 9 as “acts of local vandalism.” But black leaders blame the political atmosphere—a current backlash against the civil rights reforms of the 1960s. Preacher-politician Jesse Jackson assails “a kind of anti-black mania, a kind of white riot” fostered in Congress and the courts.
In response last week, top Clinton admin-
îsirauon oinciais neia a series of highly publicized
meetings with southern pastors. A congressional committee, which held hearings last month on the fires, approved legislation to toughen laws against attacks on places of worship. Clinton flew to Greeleyville, S.C., for a ceremony opening a new
church near the site of one burned down a year ago. And although presidential candidate Bob Dole joined in expressing concern, other Republicans questioned the Democrat President’s motives in an election
year. “Clinton does not see a tragedy,” charged House Majority Leader Dick Armey, “he sees a photo op.” Before the dedication of Greeleyville’s new Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, many in the mixed-race crowd of about 1,000 people visited the scarred patch of field nearby where its 90-year-old predeces-
sor had stood until it burned to the ground on June 20, 1995. For that fire, and another church burning in the same area the following night, two white men in their early 20s have been charged with arson. Evidence cites both men as members of the Christian Knights of the Ku
Klux Klan, a group said to have denounced black churches as centres for learning how to get public welfare.
The KKK connection generated suspicions that the burning of churches with black congregations may have been linked. So did a case in Clarksville, Tenn., where four men associated with an anti-black group, the White Aryan Faction, were sentenced early this year for firebombing black-owned buildings and conspiring to burn a black church. After the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People began drawing national attention to the rash of arson, other civil rights groups joined the campaign.
Their pressure generated the congres-
sional hearings in May, the meetings last week with federal officials and the posting of more federal agents to investigate the fires. It prompted Clinton’s reminders of the years when “black churches were burned to intimidate civil rights workers”—and his national appeals, as in Greeleyville: “I want to ask every citizen in
'Clinton does not see a tragedy/ charged a House leader. 'He sees a photo op.'
America to say we are not going back, we are not slipping back to those dark days.” The evidence so far indicates that, while racism is behind some of the burnings, most are motivated by other factors. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms cites 123 cases of arson at houses of worship in 27 states during the past five years, 38 in black churches. One white Protestant is blamed for fires in 31 white Protestant churches and a Catholic church. Twelve fires at synagogues are attributed to a man with a Jewish family background.
In Alabama alone, state Fire Marshal John Robison lists 37 churches destroyed by fire since 1990—19 black, 18 white. Five fires in black churches are still under inves-
tigation. Of the others, says Robison, “in most cases, fires were started to conceal other crimes inside the church”—usually burglary. Arrests include 23 whites and nine black suspects.
Despite the numbers, black activists argue that the fiery attacks on the central institutions of black communities do reflect a “slipping back” in a current trend to dismantle such civil rights reforms as welfare
and affirmative action rules that assist minorities. Only last week, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the designing of electoral districts to assure black representation in Congress. As Jesse Jackson put it: “The blue suits in Congress are engaging in anti-civil rights legislation,
the black robes are handing out restrictive rulings and the white sheets are doing the burning.”
In Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, once Martin Luther King’s pastorate and a cradle of the civil rights revolution, Deacon Richard Jordan is guarded in laying direct blame. But he faults Republicans in Congress for fostering a negative atmosphere. “These far-right groups really don’t help the situation,” he says. “The Newt Gingrich tone of voice never helped, the Bob Dole tone of voice doesn’t help. We need a more moderate tone.” But for the virulent racists who attack churches with fire in the dark of night, moderation is a foreign word. □
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