The fires that have destroyed or damaged Southern churches during the past eighteen months are a terrible reminder of racial hatred in the United States. Nearly 40 churches that are worship places for black or mixed congregations have burned. Most of the fires appear to be the work of arsonists, and arrests have been made in connection with some. Investigating authorities, however, have not been able to establish a conspiracy linking the burnings.
Nationwide, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms reports that there have been 23 suspicious church fires among white churches during the same eighteen months.
Still, it is the burnings of black churches that are the more numerous and the most alarming. Middle-age and elderly African-Americans, especially in the rural South, recall the days during the 1960s when the civil rights movement provoked white extremists to racial violence and church burnings were even more frequent. Over the ensuing three decades the South has seen a great deal of progress toward rectifying the racial injustices of the past, but the recent events bring back deep and terrifying memories.
Black leaders say that the motives behind the burnings in the 1990s are not as clear-cut as they were thirty years ago. While at least two arson suspects in South Carolina have ties to the Ku Klux Klan, there is one other case in which the suspect is an African-American. In Georgia, a gang of teenagers whose motivation appears to have nothing to do with racism has been accused of numerous acts of burglary, vandalism, and burnings in both black and white churches.
President Bill Clinton, himself a Southern white with an impeccable record on civil rights and other race issues, has condemned the burnings. Clinton has backed legislation to facilitate federal prosecution of those charged with setting the church fires. He has announced a hotline for people who have information about the fires: 1-888-ATF-FIRE.
The National Council of Churches has established a Burned Churches Fund to help the rebuilding effort. Contributions may be sent to:
The National Council of Churches, USA
475 Riverside Drive, Room 880
New York, NY 10115