ON THE NIGHT of June 17 fires destroyed two black churches in northeast Mississippi, at Kossuth, not far from Shiloh, the bloody Civil War battlefield. Someone apparently set the fires almost simultaneously at the Central Grove Missionary Baptist Church and the Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, and the damage to them was remarkably similar--everything burned except for the front facades and, in one case, the steeple.
These church fires were among the 74 arsons of black churches that have taken place since January 1995, most of them in the South. An especially disturbing facades and 48 black churches have burned in the South already this year, up from 19 in 1993. Such figures have prompted concern about a rise in racial hate crimes reminiscent of the days of white resistance to desegregation in the 1960s.
The Center for Democratic Renewal took note of the black church burnings in a late March news conference, attributing them to increasing white racism. The national news media soon fastened on the story with editorials, commentaries and widespread coverage of each new incident.
On August 18 President Clinton went to Fruitland, Tennessee, to help rebuild a black church burned this year. The president had already helped dramatize the awareness of the church burnings by authorizing the largest arson investigation in U.S. history, by promoting and signing a tough, bipartisan church arson bill, and by visiting a burned South Carolina church in June.
From early on, concerns about a conspiracy drove analysis of the burnings. Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, talked of the "national network of racial hostility and oppression in this country," while Jesse Jackson blamed conservatives in 'black robes" and "blue suits" for encouraging church arsonists in "white sheets.
At the same time, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich vigorously condemned the burnings of black churches, even expressing his commitment "to use the full force of the federal government" to "strengthen and protect Americans and their places of worship." Ralph Reed, director of the Christian Coalition, appeared in Atlanta to condemn the burnings and promised to raise funds to rebuild churches.
By mid-summer, detailed investigations by USA Today (June 28), the New Yorker (July 15) and the National Fire Protection Association produced enough evidence to qualify the original claims that white racism was the singular factor at work in the tragic church burnings. Early reports failed to note that as many white churches as black churches had burned. Furthermore, while the rate of church burnings has not increased among white churches as it has among black churches, there has not been an unprecedented outbreak of arson among black churches. In some parts of the South, rates of black church burnings are actually lower than in the past. Georgia experienced only one black church arson in the 18 months from early 1995 until mid-summer 1996, and in Florida four white churches have burned for every black church in the same time period. In Texas, twice as many white churches as black have burned.
Throughout the South, racism appears to be a primary factor in fewer than half the church fires. Of the 39 people arrested in 25 of the 74 black church burnings since 1995,26 have been white and 13 black.
The media's focus on the racial aspects of the church burnings has obscured the larger point that church arson has long been a problem, nowhere more so than in isolated rural areas. But church arson has been on the decline in the U.S., since its high point in 1980, when 1,420 arsons occurred. In 1994, the most recent year for which figures are available from the National Fire Protection Association, 520 churches burned.
BEHIND THE BURNINGS, white racism is often intertwined with other factors, including mental instability of arsonists, concealment of theft, vandalism, intoxication and attention-seeking. After detailed examination of the lives of 14 white suspects in black church burnings in which defendants were charged with racial motivation, USA Today concluded that the suspects had much in common: poverty, poor educations, social marginality and the abuse of alcohol. Racial feelings remain pronounced among southern whites, especially those …