When the historic black church in Greenville, Miss., first burned last month, many, including the city mayor, speculated that the intentionally lit fire was a hate crime.
It was a particularly tense time in America, just a week before the bitterly divisive 2016 presidential election came to a close. Then-candidate and now President-elect Donald Trump campaigned on building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and banning Muslims from the United States — or, at the very least, aggressively vetting Muslims seeking entry to the country. A prominent newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan offered a de facto endorsement of Trump and he secured the support of the KKK’s former grand wizard, David Duke.
Among African Americans, Trump polled with low support.
All this led church and community leaders to believe that, when they found the words “Vote Trump” spray-painted on the outside of the charred, 111-year-old Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, the fire was a political act.
“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,” a GoFundMe page created at the time said.
But the Wednesday arrest of a man with a criminal record, 45-year-old Andrew McClinton, quickly dispelled those assumptions.
McClinton, church and law enforcement officials told the Associated Press, is an African American member of the burned church. According to authorities, the blaze was not motivated by the presidential race.
“We do not believe it was politically motivated,” Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, who is also the fire marshal, told the AP. “There may have been some efforts to make it appear politically motivated.”
Authorities did not release a potential motive and said the investigation is ongoing.
As of now, McClinton has not been charged with a hate crime, Greenville city spokeswoman Kenya Collins told the Clarion-Ledger.
“The charges that he received today: It was not a hate crime but we do not know if the federal government will pursue that as such because we do not have a motive yet,” Collins told the newspaper.
McClinton is being held at the Washington County Detention Center on a charge of first-degree arson of a place of worship, reported the Clarion-Ledger. He is scheduled to make an initial court appearance Thursday in Greenville, according to the AP. It is unclear if McClinton already has legal representation.
The 45-year-old man from Leland, Miss., lived about six miles away from the charred church, authorities told the Clarion-Ledger. The AP reported that McClinton’s criminal record included a 1991 conviction for grand larceny, a 1997 conviction for attempted robbery and a 2004 conviction for armed robbery. For the last crime, he served eight years in prison and was released in 2012.
The Greenville church fire made national news when, on Nov. 1, authorities were called to the burning sanctuary and found the spray-painted message. Town officials, including the fire chief, the mayor and church leaders, expressed a heightened sense of grief at the sight of flames licking the building.
“I’ve seen a lot of things burn but when I arrived there on scene that night, it was just a different feeling,” Greenville Fire Chief Rowan Brown told the Clarion-Ledger. “I’m used to seeing houses, cars. … It was just a sad, sickening feeling because I understand how sacred a place of worship is and what it means for families to come together.
“It definitely hit a low note in my spirit when I saw it burn,” he said.
The possibility that the fire was strategically accompanied by a “Vote Trump” tag to inflame further political and racial divisiveness is not new. In recent months, alleged crimes have been committed in the name of Trump and Black Lives Matter, the victims claimed, sparking initial outrage only to be later deemed hoaxes by police.
These fabricated reports do little to advance the civil rights for which activists are fighting, they say, and instead undermine the cause.
“If you are having personal problems, want attention or need to raise awareness, crying wolf helps no one. In fact, it makes it worse,” attorney and journalist Wajahat Ali wrote on Facebook after a Muslim woman in New York falsely reported that men screaming “Donald Trump!” called her a “f‑‑‑ing terrorist” and tried to rip off her hijab.
In Greenville, the circumstances were slightly different, but the swift and loud speculations of hateful motivations of a political or racial nature rocketed the story into the national spotlight, where many used the jarring details as proof that even in 2016, America still has a long way to go.
A GoFundMe account raised more than $200,000 in two days, the Clarion-Ledger reported, but has since been taken down. The church was a total loss and has been demolished, authorities told the newspaper.
Two weeks after the fire, the fire chief told local media that samples taken from the burnt church were negative for flammable substances or an accelerant. Brown said it was unclear if the blaze started with a direct flame contact or from burning clothes or paper, but that it was still considered intentional in nature.
Since the fire, parishioners from Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church have been worshiping at the predominantly white First Baptist Church of Greenville, in a small chapel steps away from First Baptist’s main sanctuary, reported the AP. First Baptist senior pastor James Nichols said he invited the Hopewell Missionary congregation to join his parishioners in combined worship, but bishop Clarence Green declined, hoping his 200-member congregation could maintain their own identity while their church is rebuilt.
“They opened their doors to us to stay as long as we want and do whatever we need there,” Green told the AP a few weeks after the fire. “What God is doing — it’s not about race, creed or color. … The God we serve is neither black nor white, Jew nor gentile.”
In an interview with the AP, both church leaders said that combining their parishioners 30 or 40 years ago may have been impossible, but that in 2016, according to Green, a “wall of hatred is being torn down through the spirit of love.”
“It’s been refreshing to see a new chapter in our American culture,” Nichols added. “It’s not just a Greenville thing.”
Washington County, where Greenville is located, traditionally leans Democratic in an overwhelmingly Republican state. According to election data from Politico, Hillary Clinton easily won the county in the 2016 presidential election with 67.6 percent of the vote, even though Donald Trump won the state overall with 58.3 percent of the vote.
More from Morning Mix: