As firefighters neared the historically black church Tuesday night in Greenville, Miss., they saw flames in the windows and smoke pouring from the roof.
When they got closer, they could see two words spray-painted on the side of the burning sanctuary: “Vote Trump.”
Investigators believe the blaze at 110-year-old Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church was set on purpose, Greenville Fire Chief Ruben Brown told The Washington Post. The suspected arson is being investigated as a hate crime by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
On Wednesday, fire officials in Mississippi insisted that the motives of whoever burned the church are still unclear.
But Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons called the fire a “hateful and cowardly act,” sparked by the incendiary rhetoric of GOP nominee Donald Trump during his presidential campaign.
“We know what the black church means to the black community and the symbolism of the black church,” Simmons told The Post. “This is the place [where] people freely assembled to pray and strategize on how to get civil liberties and rights that were denied to them.”
Trump’s campaign denounced the fire that left the 200-member church badly damaged.
“We are deeply saddened for the members of the Hopewell M.B. Church community and condemn in the strongest terms this terrible act that has no place in our society,” the campaign said in a statement. “We are grateful that no one was hurt and we urge witnesses with any information to come forward and help bring justice to those who are responsible.”
Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican who has been campaigning for Trump, said “anyone who burns a place of worship will answer to almighty God for this crime against people of faith. But they should also answer to man’s law.”
Those responsible will answer for this despicable crime against people of faith. We expect a suspect will be ID'ed and brought to justice. https://t.co/vGwzNddTWd
— Phil Bryant (@PhilBryantMS) November 2, 2016
Firefighters were summoned to the burning church just after 9 p.m. Tuesday, said Brown, the fire chief.
They found the brick building in flames. They put out the fire in 12 minutes, Brown said, but the church sanctuary sustained heavy damage. A kitchen and pastor’s study in the rear were also damaged.
No one was inside the church when it was set on fire, and no one was injured, Brown said. The mayor said investigators have identified “a person of interest,” but authorities have not named a suspect or made any arrests.
Hopewell’s pastor said the congregation plans to rebuild.
“Our hearts are broken, but we are not angry,” the Rev. Carilyn F. Hudson told the Clarion-Ledger. “We are saddened, but we do know that all things work together for good to those that love the Lord.”
“The animus of this election cycle combined with the potent racial history of burning black churches as a political symbol makes this event something we must not ignore,” the GoFundMe page said. “Only two weeks ago, the internet came together to help repair a North Carolina GOP field office that had been burned by thugs. Justice demands we do the same now.”
Simmons, the mayor, said he directed police to provide additional patrols at the city’s churches in the wake of the suspected arson.
Officers will also be out in force on Election Day in Greenville — a city where 78 percent of the population is black, according to census figures.
“We want folks to go to the polls and not feel fearful, to not feel intimidated and to not feel they have to stay home because some person is engulfed in hate,” said Simmons, the first black man elected mayor in the Mississippi Delta city. “This is a direct assault on black folks. It goes to the heart of intimidating folks.”
The fire and “Vote Trump” message came with a week left in the campaign.
Trump has struggled to make inroads with black voters and recently pledged what he called “a new deal for black America.” His plan would give city leaders authority to declare blighted communities disaster areas. It would also use microloans, tax holidays and investment incentives to spur the economies of inner cities.
Trump has also said that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats have taken for granted the overwhelming support they receive from blacks.
But, according to The Post, Trump’s campaign is “barely registering with African American voters. He had 3 percent support among African Americans in an ABC News tracking poll released (Oct. 23), compared with Clinton’s 82 percent. Romney had 6 percent support among African Americans in 2012.”
One flash point for Trump: His campaign has been praised by hate groups that have persecuted blacks for decades. One of the most prominent newspapers for the Ku Klux Klan offered a defacto endorsement of Trump, dedicating its entire front page to a pro-Trump article. In February, Trump was endorsed by former KKK grand wizard David Duke. He later declined to unequivocally condemn Duke when prodded by CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D), whose district includes Greenville, said the incident at the church “harkens back to a much darker day in Mississippi.”
“The political message of the vandalism is obviously an attempt to sway public opinion regarding the upcoming election,” he wrote in a statement sent to the Associated Press. “I encourage all citizens not to be deterred by this cowardly act and exercise your right to vote at the ballot box.”
Setting fire to a church is a symbolic act that stretches back to the Reconstruction-era South, when churches served as the centers of black communities.
The most infamous case came in 1963, when four KKK members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four girls who were changing into their choir robes and wounding 20 others. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called the act “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”
The bombing brought an international spotlight to the U.S. civil rights movement and “the injustices and terrorism facing blacks in the South, and was a flash point in the struggle for equal rights,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.
The South saw a new spate of church attacks in summer 2015 after a white gunman shot and killed nine black people during a prayer service at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. The suspect, Dylann Roof, said he wanted to start a race war.
Afterward, multiple black churches were burned across the South, from Charlotte to Macon, Ga.
“Everything is gone — books, robes, all my pictures, all my degrees,” the Rev. Bobby Jean Jones told the Aiken Standard after Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, S.C., burned down. “All the history is gone.
“It’s all for the good, because God is in control and not me,” he added. “That’s why I’m calm, because I know who is in control, to tell you the truth. I’ve been knowing the Lord for a long time, and I know how he works. He will turn bad to good in a minute.”
Simmons, the Greenville mayor, told the Clarion-Ledger that the Hopewell fire was the sort of thing that “happened in the ’50s and the ’60s. This should not happen in 2016.”
The mayor noted that the n-word had been scrawled on a boat ramp in the city in September.
Still, he told the Mississippi newspaper, the racial climate in Greenville is good.
“The only way to conquer hate is love,” he said. “We must show love, respect and dignity to each other.”
This post has been updated.