Magazine article The Christian Century

Arsons and Racism: Motives for the Church Fires

Magazine article The Christian Century

Arsons and Racism: Motives for the Church Fires

Article excerpt

IN MID-JULY a remarkable ecumenical coalition placed a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post and USA Today featuring a picture of a burning church with the headline, "This is every church in America." "These attacks aimed predominantly at African-American congregations threaten all of us," the ad said. "Any attack on a church or synagogue or mosque is an attack on all people of faith and every house of worship in America."

The coalition, which was called together by the National Conference of Churches, said its joint mission is to "restore the damaged churches and to challenge racism." It invited "all Americans of good will to contribute to the Burned Churches Fund." (The coalition participants: the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American Jewish Committee, the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism--Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Congress of National Black Churches, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Islamic Circle of North America and the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of America.)

This collective effort was part of a broader response by the nation's religious communities, the federal government, and a number of local, regional and national organizations to the reports of burned churches. Dozens of groups volunteered to help rebuild churches. Businesses, foundations, churches, church agencies and individuals donated funds. By mid-July the NCC's Burned Church Fund had already brought in $8.3 million. The Christian Coalition pledged to raise $1 million. The Sons of Confederate Veterans in Columbia, Tennessee, where two churches were fire-bombed, made a gift. Local newspapers covered the story in detail and editorialized against the destruction of sanctuaries that were the heart and soul of mostly rural communities. The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms put more than 200 agents into investigations of black church arsons. White and black Congregations worshiped together in a way not known since the civil rights heyday. The stories of burned churches had obviously struck a national nerve.

This burst of activity followed intensive media coverage of the burnings--coverage which peaked in May and June when President Clinton, who had had a chance to talk in depth with some of the churches' pastors, devoted his weekly radio address to the issue June 8 and visited a restored church in Greeleyville, South Carolina, on June 12.

At about the same time that groups were mobilizing their efforts to assist the affected communities, claims began to surface that the story was exaggerated. The ad also came on the heels of a series of such claims. Newspaper and magazine articles and radio reports (including comments by Rush Limbaugh) questioned whether racism was an issue. The Wall Street Journal's op-ed page was predictably negative. Michael Fumento wrote July 8 that "this supposed 'epidemic of hatred' is a myth, probably a deliberate hoax. There is no evidence of any increase in black church burnings."

The Associated Press said on July 4 that "there is little hard evidence of a sudden wave of racially motivated arsons against black churches in the South. A review of six years of federal, state and local data found arsons are up--at both black and white churches--but with only random links to racism. "

Michael Kelly, in a lengthy New Yorker piece (July 15), stated what is obvious to those who look carefully: "In the past 18 months there has been a dramatic increase in the number of reported fires at black churches in the Southeast, and there is little doubt that in a significant number of the fires racial animosity was a motive." But he called the claims of a more systemic racism "a large fiction spun out of a smaller truth."

Who--and what--then, are we to believe? First, a sharp increase in black-church fires in the past 18 months is a fact. The Justice Department reports that since May 1990 the federal government has investigated 290 separate attacks on churches, more than 250 of them fires. …

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