AFTER LAST month’s mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., passions burned high in the South. Now, the flames have turned literal, with six predominantly black churches in Southern states catching fire in the weeks since the tragedy. The incidents are under investigation, at least two of them likely accidents. The other four have not been identified as hate crimes. Still, the painful history of attacks on black churches is cause enough for concern.
A report then-President Bill Clinton commissioned on church burnings during his administration found that just 24 of 827 arson or bombing attacks on churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious properties between 1995 and 1999 were definitely motivated by bias. That is 2.9 percent. A nother report found that an average of 1,780 fires struck religious buildings every year from 2007 to 2011. In the face of these facts, six burning churches in two weeks may not appear out of the ordinary. Yet it is context, not statistics, that makes the flames frightening.
In the 1950s and ’60s, black churches were more than just religious and community centers. They were hubs of civil rights organization. That made them easy targets for groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which began bombing and burning houses of worship across the South at historic rates. Attacks against black churches did not stop there. During the spate of arson that prompted the Clinton investigations, for example, men with KKK ties torched the same Mount Zion AME Church that burned — accidentally, officials say — in South Carolina this week. And as recently as November 2008, on the night of President Obama’s election, three men set fire to a church in Springfield, Mass., to protest the first black president.
It is not wrong to worry that the recent fires are the latest in a long line of hate. If Dylann Roof’s solo crusade in the name of white supremacy did not start the race war he yearned for, the subsequent backlash against the Confederate battle flag does seem to have invigorated racist groups. Supremacist Web sites spew vitriol. The neo-secessionist group League of the South has begun to channel fear of what it calls “cultural genocide” against the region into an opportunity for recruitment. It is hard to watch hatred surge and churches burn in so short a span of time and not wonder if the two are related. It is hard for African Americans in the South to see the same and not fear. Investigators should deliver answers as quickly as they can.