The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why racists target black churches

As flames engulfed Mount Zion AME Church, a predominantly African American congregation in the tiny town of Greeleyville, S.C., Tuesday night, social media lit up with expressions of sorrow, speculation and outrage.

[Fire crews battle a blaze at historic black church near Charleston]

The fire was one of six at black churches in the past two weeks, three of which are being investigated as arsons, and one of hundreds, possibly thousands, in the past two centuries.

The cause of Tuesday’s blaze and the others remain uncertain, although the AP, quoting an unnamed federal source, reported Wednesday morning that “preliminary indications” suggested it was not an arson. Still, along with earlier fires since the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, the blazes evoked a painful history, some of it recent, that still haunts African American congregations.

Just hours before the Mount Zion fire broke out, the NAACP warned black churches to “take necessary precautions” against the threat of attack. And federal law enforcement officials are now automatically investigating all such fires at black churches to see if they are hate crimes.

And while they may or may not indeed be hate crimes or even arsons, the fact that these are the first things that come to mind when a black church burns — a half century after the Jim Crow era — remains haunting, particularly in the wake of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church, which is being treated as a hate crime.

And it was not so long ago that there were a rash of hate crimes directed at black churches.

Mount Zion itself has been torched before — in 1995, by two young white men with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. During the mid-90s, there was a surge of attacks against black churches, enough to prompt Congress to hold hearings on the subject.

Since at least 1822, when the first recorded burning of a black church occurred in South Carolina, church arson has been the default response of racists frustrated with progress — or even the faint specter of progress — on civil rights. More than even lynching, burning houses of worship remains a go-to weapon in hate groups’ arsenal. Torching churches such as Mount Zion persisted decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, 100 years after Booker T. Washington dined at the White House and 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

What’s the enduring appeal of this very specific act of terror for those who wish to express hate?

The reason black churches remain a target? Because they have always remained a symbol of hope in the darkness of American racism and a source of leadership, political and religious, in the African American community.

Though it may seem the black church has always been a part of American culture — as essential as the Fourth of July or “The Star-Spangled Banner” — it was not always so. When human beings were held in servitude and meetings among slaves were banned, founding a black church was considered an act of rebellion.

Case No. 1: The founding of the church that would became Emanuel AME, the church targeted allegedly by Dylann Roof last month.

“The formation of the African Church in Charleston was a rebellious act of revolutionary proportions,” historian Bernard Powers wrote in “Black Charlestonians: A Social History.” “… The city authorities recognized the full import of the initiatives taken by this group of slaves and free blacks and responded with harassment.”

[Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church: A legacy of heroes and martyrs]

Like many black churches, Charleston’s African Church saw a tragic end; it was razed by city authorities in the 1820s after a purported slave plot and was not reborn until Reconstruction. Though such churches remained a constant target, they persisted, weaving themselves not just into the fabric of African American culture but into the social fabric of the United States.

During the early years of the black church in the South, when most congregants were enslaved and the rest still subject to the restrictive racism that was then the law of the land, Christianity offered solace and inspiration to African American worshipers. In the introduction to the award-winning digital library collection “The Church in the Southern Black Community,” professor Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill explained how black Americans converted to Methodist and Baptist traditions around the turn of the 19th century.

“Clergy within these denominations actively promoted the idea that all Christians were equal in the sight of God, a message that provided hope and sustenance to the slaves,” she wrote.

Among enslaved people, religious gatherings were called “hush harbors” — a phrase evoked by President Obama during his impassioned eulogy for the slain pastor of Emanuel AME last week. These secret meetings were the birthplace of African American spirituals, which always carried a double meaning of religious salvation and freedom from slavery, and of the inextricable link between black spirituality and black liberation.

“Part church, part psychological refuge, and part organizing point for occasional acts of outright rebellion … these meetings provided one of the few ways for enslaved African Americans to express and enact their hopes for a better future,” Maffly-Kipp wrote.

Beyond the confines of slave quarters, black congregations saw threats of their own. White society was deeply suspicious of these churches and their gospel of liberation, which they feared would foment revolt. They weren’t entirely wrong: Nat Turner, who led a famous but short-lived rebellion in Virginia in the 1830s, was a Baptist preacher. And Denmark Vesey, who was executed for his alleged role in plotting an insurrection, was a prominent figure at Charleston’s African Church who preached that black slaves were modern-day Israelites and God’s chosen people.

States responded with draconian laws intended to shut down the churches but mostly just succeeded in driving them underground. Black congregations remained a spiritual and social force — the places slaves learned to read in secret and escapees took refuge along the Underground Railroad.

After emancipation, the church remained the center of African American life. Northern black religious leaders launched a huge missionary effort, sending representatives south to set up congregations among free slaves who could now finally worship in the open. Within a few decades, the African Methodist Episcopal and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion churches, both founded in the North, claimed hundreds of thousands of followers south of the Mason-Dixon line. The National Baptist Convention, founded in Alabama at the end of the 19th century, soon followed.

Like their predecessors during slavery, these churches provided more than just spiritual solace. They facilitated an explosion of black literacy in the South — from 5 percent in 1870 to about 70 percent by 1900, according to Maffly-Kipp — and fostered a wide array of black cultural and political leaders. For example, more than a third of black legislators in Georgia during Reconstruction were ordained ministers. The first African American in the U.S. Congress was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. To the north, the First Congregational Church in Great Barrington, Mass., raised funds to send one its promising young parishioners to college: W.E.B. DuBois.

That tradition continued into the 1950s and 60s, when churches served as training grounds for the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and shelters for its foot soldiers. Protests were planned beneath their roofs, rallies were launched from their steps, leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached equality from their pulpits. They were command posts in the fight for civil rights — and that made them targets.

“The bombing and burning of black churches translated into an attack upon the core of civil rights activism, as well as upon the larger black community,” Michelle M. Simms-Paris wrote in her 1993 law review article “What Does It Mean to See a Black Church Burning?” “A broad assault on members of a black community could effectively take place by burning a black church.”

The most infamous attack happened in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, when four Ku Klux Klan members planted sticks of dynamite beneath the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The explosion killed four young girls and injured nearly two dozen others. King called the bombing “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.”

But it was far from the only one. The local Klan chapter was so prolifically violent that people began calling the city “Bombingham.”

Elsewhere, bombings and burnings at black churches were often overlooked — except by their victims, whom they terrified. In her article, Simms-Paris recounted more than a dozen attacks on activist black churches between 1957 and 1968. These congregations were active in the Civil Rights Movement —registering people to vote, hosting Head Start programs, organizing protests against segregated schools — and the burnings scared them into silence. In Meridian, Miss., where two churches were bombed and two more burned in the course of a single year, the congregation at a fifth church vetoed a proposal to launch a Head Start program there, scared they would be next.

Though church fires never really stopped, they surged in the mid-1990s, when a spate of more than 600 incidents across the South finally held the nation’s attention. Among them was Mount Zion AME, a modest church in Greeleyville that suddenly went up in flames one night in June 1995. The sheriff initially dismissed the incident as an electrical fire even though the church’s pastor said the breaker box had been turned off. When a second local church was burned two nights later, it was deemed an act of nature.

The Rev. Terrance Mackey, pastor of Mount Zion AME, told the Los Angeles Times then that racism was rampant in the community.

“Racial inequity and intimidation are the norm in this part of South Carolina,” the newspaper reported at the time. “Last week, Gov. David Beasley even cited the local animosities as one of the reasons he believes the Confederate battle flag should no longer fly atop the state Capitol, the last statehouse to fly it.”

That was in 1996 — but to many today, it sounds achingly familiar.

Later, two young white men who were members of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter admitted to the Mount Zion attack. And President Bill Clinton’s National Church Arson Task Force, established in 1996 to examine the spate of burnings, prosecuted dozens of others. More than 100 people were arrested in connection with 225 attacks at African American churches between 1995 and 1998 — ultimately, 25 of them were charged with hate crimes.

“The fires at the churches in Alabama and Tennessee resurrect historically painful memories among African Americans,” Wade Henderson, the director of the NAACP’s Washington bureau, wrote in a letter to then Attorney General Janet Reno in 1996. “We all are aware of the time when the pursuit of religious education by African Americans was itself a violation of law, and when groups of vigilantes sought to violently suppress religious freedom.”

Whether or not the seven fires of the past two weeks are determined to be hate crimes, they have resurrected the same memories Henderson wrote of 19 years ago — even as some say the black church is in decline.

“The Black Church, as we’ve known it or imagined it, is dead,” Eddie Glaude Jr., Princeton religion professor and chair of its center for African American Studies, wrote in a controversial Huffington Post opinion piece in 2010. “Of course, many African Americans still go to church. According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 87 percent of African Americans identify with a religious group and 79 percent say that religion is very important in their lives. But the idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared.”

Reached this week, Glaude told The Washington Post “it’s hard to think about his piece” in relation to recent stories of black church burnings. But Glaude thought the challenge he leveled at black churches — to embrace their legacy of progressive action even as Christianity remains a conservative force in American politics — remains relevant.

“It’s an attack on an important symbol of black life,” Glaude said of the shooting at Emanuel AME, “but on an institution that’s changed.”

Still, for many the church remains “the beating heart” of the African American community, as Obama put it in his eulogy for Emanuel AME pastor Clementa Pinckney in Charleston last week. Obama’s remarks echoed those of President Clinton at the dedication of the new Mount Zion AME church in Greeleyville 19 years ago — the same building that was ravaged by flames Tuesday night.

At the ceremony, Clinton presented the congregation with a plaque that read: “We must come together as one America to rebuild our churches, restore hope, and show the forces of hatred they cannot win.”

That plaque was inside Mount Zion AME while it burned last night.

Correction: A video caption accompanying this article earlier confused a 1995 fire at Mt. Zion AME Church in South Carolina,  for which two men were tried and convicted, with a fire at the same church on June 30 which is not at this time being treated as an arson.