In Church Fires, a Pattern but No Conspiracy
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 19, 1996; Page A01
The people burning down black churches in the South are generally white, male and young, usually economically marginalized or poorly educated, frequently drunk or high on drugs, rarely affiliated with hate groups, but often deeply driven by racism, according to investigators and a review of those arrested or convicted in the burnings.
Little evidence has emerged to suggest a national or regional conspiracy, according to investigators. But they point to a climate of underlying racism that encourages the arsonists to strike at African American churches.
Noah Chandler at the Center for Democratic Renewal, a civil rights watchdog group in Atlanta, put it this way: "The conspiracy is racism itself."
At the same time, the burnings of predominantly African American churches occur against what investigators said is a backdrop of widespread arson against houses of religion of all kinds, including white churches, mosques and synagogues.
As of yesterday, there had been 37 suspicious fires at black churches in the last 18 months, including two in Mississippi late Monday night. During about the same time frame, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), there have been 23 suspicious fires at predominantly white churches, which far outnumber black churches. Just this week, another white church, in suburban Atlanta, was heavily damaged by fire that investigators are examining for possible arson.
Responding to the wave of church burnings, the House yesterday overwhelmingly approved legislation to make it easier for federal officials to prosecute those involved in church burnings and to make it a federal crime to damage religious property because of its "racial or ethnic character." President Clinton, meanwhile, asked Congress to provide an extra $12 million for investigations; a House Appropriations subcommittee indicated it would go along.
The complexities in trying to characterize who is burning black churches and why is apparent in the case of a gang of Georgia teenagers, all high school dropouts, who investigators say were responsible for as many as 90 burglaries, burnings and vandalism at both black and white churches.
Members of the group told police they picked churches generally because they were easy targets, isolated and empty.
"If they didn't find any money, they'd pay them back by vandalizing the church or burning it," said Homer Kaedle, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations agent in charge. Sometimes, to throw police off their trail, they also would spray-paint obscene or racist language on the churches.
Three decades ago, the Night Riders, who blazed a trail of fear and destruction across the South by firebombing churches and homes, generally were members of highly organized, very public efforts to intimidate blacks, led by the Ku Klux Klan and with a single political purpose: enforcing segregation.
Today, those arrested for torching black churches include a deranged 13-year-old girl who harbored anti-Christian beliefs, an "all American-type" volunteer fireman who investigators said likes to set buildings aflame, and rampaging juveniles who cared more about stealing money from the collection plate than the color of the denomination's skin -- a group that one Georgia law enforcement agent described as "just a bunch of jerky kids." One of those "kids" was just sentenced to 95 years in prison. There has also been at least one card-carrying member of the KKK.
State and federal investigators and experts on hate crimes say many of today's accused or convicted burners are a mixed lot, but they agree with black pastors and leaders that their acts often are generated by an underlying racism.
That many of those arrested or convicted are not organized in Klan klaverns may not matter; it may even make the rash of crimes worse, they say.
Not atypical of the cases was that of three white Mississippi teenagers, two just 17, who drove away from the flaming Rocky Point Missionary Baptist Church in Pike County, Miss., early on the morning of April 5, 1993, screaming, "Burn, nigger, burn." Among the three, two never finished high school and two came from indigent circumstances and could not afford defense attorneys. All three are now in federal prisons for the burning.
Tom Royals, an attorney for one of the teenagers convicted in the Mississippi case, said, "It was an irrational act. They were young, drunk and crazy."
Deval Patrick, the U.S. assistant attorney general for civil rights, told Congress that federal agents have yet to find a conspiracy and that little about the times, dates and methods of the fires seems consistent or linked. But Patrick also said, "The climate of racial division across the country is extreme."
The ATF has opened investigations of 154 church fires, both black and white, nationwide since October 1991. The pace of African American church burnings has quickened significantly in the last several months, with 23 open ATF cases from fiscal 1996, compared with six in the previous fiscal year. Not all of the black church blazes are being investigated by the ATF; some are being investigated solely at the local level at this point.
There are roughly an equal number of cases of white churches and those of other races that the ATF is investigating because of suspicious fires. But the burning of small, usually rural and isolated, black churches in the South has a special historical resonance.
Experts on hate crimes, reviewing details of those apprehended so far for the church burnings, suggest few are "hard-core hatemongers" or belong to organized groups and much of what may be happening now -- with nearly daily new suspicious church fires -- may be copycat acts.
"My own personal opinion . . . is this may have been a situation where we had people who were sympathetic, who heard about this and who took it upon themselves to take it to another level, another jurisdiction," said Barrown Lakster, the Greene County, Ala., district attorney, after a church in his area burned.
To date only one alleged burner has turned up with direct ties to the Klan. Timothy Adron Welsh, 23, was charged with arson along with another man for burning two churches in South Carolina.
The two are also accused of stabbing and beating an elderly black man. When arrested, Welsh had a KKK card in his wallet, police said.
In several cases already prosecuted, drugs and alcohol were clearly the key. In Tennessee, for example, three men got high on a combination of Valium, whiskey and beer, then made Molotov cocktails of their empty bottles.
They first tried to burn a tavern where one of the men, Robert Lee Johnson, a 34-year-old construction worker, thought he had been cheated by blacks at a dice game. They failed. "The more they drank, the more they talked," said U.S. Attorney Delk Kennedy in Tennessee. "Then they decided to burn some churches. It was definitely a spur-of-the-moment thing, drunken talk, bravado induced by alcohol. . . . These guys don't think past the next six-pack." The three were convicted of burning two black churches.
The Washington Post over the last three months has requested interviews with nine burners serving jail sentences for attacks on black churches, but all have refused to be interviewed.
But at the sentencing of the three teenagers who torched the two Mississippi churches in 1993, two of the defendants apologized to members of the black congregations in the courtroom.
"Your Honor, I'd like to tell the members of both churches that I am sorry for what happened. I'm truly sorry," said Charles McGeehee Jr., who, with his two friends, yelled that night, "That will teach you niggers."
A few moments later, Bernice Dixon, a member of one of the congregations that lost its church, rose to address the court: "I see that young man turn around and say he's sorry. If he really means that, I can forgive him. But what about our church? Their conduct has tore up our church completely. Our pastor is in the hospital as a result. The church's home is in shambles and the members are scattered. And before that happened, we had a lovely time, a lovely church home, a lovely church family and a lovely pastor, but now we have neither."
Staff writer Pierre Thomas and special correspondent Catharine Skipp contributed to this report.
© 1996 The Washington Post Company
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