Church Burning in African American Communities: Implications for Empowerment Practice

Article excerpt

During the 1995-96 period, there was a noticeable increase in arson to churches whose congregations are predominately African American. The U.S. Justice Department reported 28 incidents in the 17 months before May 1996 (Fletcher, 1996b). Most of the fires occurred in isolated areas of the South and Southwest, including the states of Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, South Carolina, Texas, and Oklahoma. Several churches dated back to the beginning of the century. The Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Alabama, for example, was 100 years old and the Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church of North Carolina was 93 years of age (Associated Press, 1996).

Although the deliberate burning of a church is generally abhorred, for many African Americans church arson suggests more than destruction of a place of worship. Church burning brings to mind earlier periods in U.S. history when bombings, burnings, and other destructive acts to black churches were common. An example is the well-publicized incident of 1963, in which four African American girls were killed in a fire bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church of Alabama (Smith & Peyser, 1996). The burning of black churches is also associated with lynchings, segregated facilities, and other indignities (Gates & West, 1996; Nixon, 1996). Church arson is a vivid reminder to some African Americans of the limited resources within their communities, particularly funds to rebuild churches.

Even when sufficient resources are available for rebuilding projects, church burning can be devastating to black communities. The church is in many ways a focal point of African American communities and a major source of support to black families. When church arson occurs, a vital coping mechanism (Johnson & Barer, 1990) is suddenly and tragically lost. Communities can find themselves in crisis. In the absence of a familiar stress management strategy, residents sometimes feel disempowered and turn to community organizers for assistance. As community organizers, social workers are in key positions to help client systems address many of the empowerment issues related to church burnings.

This article identifies church burnings as a major threat to the integrity of African American communities and discusses the conservative political context within which church arsons occur, the vital role of the church in African American communities, and the responses of African American communities to church burnings. Because social workers have not played an active role in addressing church burning and because it is important that the profession respond to church arson in ways that mobilize strengths within black communities, the article stresses the value of empowerment practice. Empowerment practice, unlike strategies aimed at helping client systems adjust to or cope with problems, is concerned with increasing clients' personal, social, or political power so that they are enabled to change their situations and prevent the reoccurrence of problems (Gutierrez, GlenMaye, & DeLois, 1995).

Political Context

Researchers have documented a resurgence of conservative attitudes in the United States. They cite as examples attacks on affirmative action, court reversals of decisions on redistricting, and increases in hate speech and hate crimes (Smith & Peyser, 1996; White, 1996a). Activities such as the U.S. Department of the Treasury (1996) Good O' Boy Roundup, the opening of a South Carolina Ku Klux Klan memorabilia store during a period of increased church burnings in the area, and refusal of the state of Alabama to remove the confederate flag from the state house (Fletcher, 1996c) tend to further exacerbate racial hostility. As a white resident of Lane, South Carolina, stated when a black church was burned in his neighborhood, "People are acting differently, talking differently. You can't pinpoint it, but you can tell the good relations are dwindling away" (Fletcher, 1996c, p. …