Black Southern Churches Under FireBy Barry E. Lee
Vol. 18, No. 1, 1996 pp. 11-13
Historically, the church has been the "soul of the black community," says the Reverend Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Since April of 1993, at least twenty-seven black churches (and at least one with a racially mixed congregation) in the South have burned under suspicious circumstances. According to the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR), an Atlanta-based civil and human rights action research center which specializes in tracking hate crimes, the number increases to forty-five if acts of vandalism are included.
This recent rash of church fires brings back haunting memories of the horror of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on September 15, 1963, in which four black girls were murdered. The apparent rebirth of what many black community and civic leaders consider "domestic terrorism" has generated great consternation, national focus and a sense of urgency to end the fires.
Although church burnings were fairly common during the 1960s, the recent spate of fires has "caught everybody short," according to Mary Frances Berry, Chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, because most groups had ceased to monitor incidents of this sort.
Since 1986, there have been reports of suspicious church fires every year. The frequency of these acts increased dramatically in 1995 when thirteen churches were torched. Already in 1996 ten churches have been destroyed.
Most of the blazes occurred in rural, isolated areas served by volunteer fire companies where water must be transported to the fire site. In most cases there have been no witnesses and no arrests made. In the eight cases where arrests have been made, all the perpetrators have been white. A white fireman has been charged with arson in the fire set at New Liberty Baptist in Tyler, Alabama, on February 28, 1996.
Seventeen fires were set during Black History Month, on the anniversaries of important civil rights events like Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, assassination and the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, or near the time the King Holiday is celebrated in mid-January.
The states hardest hit have been Tennessee with eight fires, and Alabama and Louisiana with five each. In Louisiana, four churches were torched on February 1, 1996, the anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins, all in East Baton Rouge Parish. And in Alabama four churches were set on fire during a three-week period in the town of Boligee.
Officials responsible for investigating the fires are very reluctant to attribute racial motives to the tragedies or to speculate that a conspiracy links all of the fires. However, ministers of the burned out churches in Boligee, civil rights leaders, and the Center for Democratic Renewal have no doubt that the culprits have racial motives and that the fires are linked: all of the fires have hit black and integrated churches, all those arrested so far have been white and in some cases these white males have ties to white supremacists groups, and most of the fires occurred on or near civil rights anniversaries.
In a press conference held on March 27, 1996, at the King Center in Atlanta, the Reverend C.T. Vivian, chairman of the CDR, told the audience "what is used against black people will be used against all of us tomorrow. There must be redemption for the nation. We as Americans can stop this racist destruction."
The urgency to end the burnings and the attending national focus is influenced by several factors. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, local black churches often served as the Movement's nerve center. Prayer vigils, strategy sessions, anti- segregation speeches and sermons, and protest rallies were based at black churches. This institution was the one place where African Americans claimed total ownership, and equally important, it was also the central training ground for African American leadership.
The suspicious nature of these fires is viewed as a direct attack against the life-force of many African Americans. The Reverend Donald Upton, pastor of Inner City Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, which was burned in January, best summed it up by saying, "We were more than just a church. We were providing jobs, we were a bank, a childcare center. We were trying to improve our community."
Given the recent assaults on affirmative action, the actions of white supremacists and militias and the general racial tension across the nation, many African American leaders feel these fires are psychologically linked to the current racial backlash and hope to break the apparent cycle of arson before it escalates any further. The involvement of public figures such as Reverend Lowery and Reggie White, an assistant pastor of Inner City Baptist Church and a famous professional football player, has helped bring national attention to the fires. Both Lowery and White have publicly condemned the burnings and have endorsed rebuilding fund-raising efforts.
Black leaders are worried about the plodding and perhaps misdirected nature of the investigation. Officials from the FBI and ATF interrogated members of Inner City Baptist and confiscated property belonging to the church and pastor, but have not returned the items. Reverend Charles Mack Jones, former president of CDR contends that federal officials are "too busy probing the victims rather than looking for the real culprits."
As tragic as the news is about these churches, there is some good news. Multiracial and cross-regional support has been building to help fund the resurrection of the churches that have been destroyed. Many of the congregations, particularly those in the Boligee churches, are small and had inadequate insurance to cover their losses. A fund has been established by the ministers in Boligee to rebuild their churches. For those readers who want to contribute, please send your check to: Greene County Emergency Church Fund, Route 2, Box 94, Eutaw, AL 35462, c/o the Reverend Levi Pickens.
Pressure is building to bring an end to this episode. The FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), and various state and local agencies continue to investigate.
Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has promised a committee hearing later in the year, but no date has been set. Civil rights leaders, local ministers, and their congregations wonder: how much later? These burnings have been going on for years. Although no lives have been lost yet, parishioners of blacks churches are not safe as long as these arsons continue.
Concerned citizens should contact the Center for Democratic Renewal at (404) 221-0025 to inquire about other ways to offer help. Information about the fires can be reported to the ATF Arson Hotline, (800) 366-9501.
Barry Lee is a graduate student in the Women's Studies Institute at Georgia State University.