Little Evidence of Racism in Fires: Two Blacks Held in N.C. Blaze
Price, Joyce, Strobel, Warren P., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Two black men were arrested yesterday and charged with setting a fire last month that destroyed a building undergoing renovation on the grounds of the predominantly black Mount Tabor Baptist Church in Cerro Gordo, N.C.
"The building was an old schoolhouse 50 feet from the church that was being remodeled for use as an education facility" said Columbus County Sheriff Jimmy Ferguson in a telephone interview yesterday. "The church building was not damaged."
The sheriff declined to say why the two men burned down the building. "But this fire was not racially motivated," he said.
This was not the first time black suspects have been linked to recent arson or attempted arson of black churches in the South. "We arrested four little African-American children, aged 12 and under [Tuesday], for setting a fire in a [black] church in Florence, S.C.," said Chief Robert Stewart of the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division.
The good news, he said, is that the fire was discovered and extinguished before it could do any damage.
President Clinton, who entertained governors of several Southern states at the White House yesterday to discuss the church-fires problem, joined the growing chorus of those who say they do not believe a national conspiracy is at work.
"On the other hand, I do believe a lot of these instances are racially motivated, and they tend to play off of one another," Mr. Clinton said.
Vice President Al Gore, briefing reporters on the meeting's results, said participants had discussed proposals for "catalyzing a full-fledged, nationwide, all-out response to this issue."
Mr. Gore said the Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with the Justice and Treasury departments, would develop a plan to combat church burnings that will rely on federal, state and private funds. One idea is to form "house-of-worship watch groups" similar to neighborhood watch groups.
Chief Stewart said his office has investigated 27 South Carolina church fires since January 1991. "There were 15 black churches [burned], 10 white churches, an Islamic mosque and a church with a Hispanic congregation," he said.
"We've arrested six white men, and now with these children, six African-Americans, in connection with the fires at African-American churches."
John Bankhead, spokesman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said that office has investigated seven church fires in the past 18 months, and six of the seven were buildings of white congregations.
"There was a black church burned in February 1995, and it was burned by a black juvenile," Mr. Bankhead said.
Alabama Fire Marshal John Robison said a black minister was charged in one of the 15 arsons or suspected arsons of black churches that have occurred in his state since January 1991. The fire in question was deliberately set at the Antioch A.M.E. Church in Fort Deposit, Ala., in September 1994.
"The pastor was upset with the congregation about money, she felt she didn't get paid enough," said Mr. …