Follow Your Funds With A Personalized Watch List.

Return to our special report

Go to the National Section

Officials, Communities React to Church Burnings in the South

When a string of fires at predominately black churches in the South began last winter, the U.S. Department of Justice began an investigation. During the next six months, as arsonists set fires across the South and as far north as Delaware and Oklahoma, others began to get involved. One bank offered a reward for information about who set each fire. The U.S. Historic Trust put historic black churches on its endangered list. The Christian Coalition announced it would work with church leaders to help squelch fires. President Clinton spoke on the topic several times during visits to the South and in campaign speeches across the nation. In May, the Justice Department's investigators announced they found no evidence of a widespread conspiracy. But some Southerners say they see the burnings as part of a larger epidemic: persistent racism and hate.

U.S. Investigates Suspicious Fires at Southern Black Churches

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 1996; Page A03
The Washington Post

The Justice Department has launched a civil rights investigation into a string of suspicious fires at predominately black churches in Alabama and Tennessee, a department spokesman said yesterday.

The investigation was announced after the NAACP yesterday released a letter it sent last month to Attorney General Janet Reno that cited an apparent pattern linking the fires and asked Reno to launch a probe into potential civil rights violations stemming from them.

"If there is a connection in these fires, then what these communities in Alabama and Tennessee are experiencing represents a direct and unacceptable threat to the physical safety and religious liberty of these citizens," Wade Henderson, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau, wrote in the Jan. 29 letter to Reno. "They also constitute an especially pernicious violation of fundamental civil rights."

Justice Department spokesman Myron Marlin said the agency has "already opened a criminal civil rights investigation into the fires."

Within a recent three-week period, three small, predominately black churches were destroyed by fire in Greene County, Ala., an isolated area of the state not far from the Mississippi line. Those apparent arsons, which occurred in late December and early January, followed several other attacks on black churches within the past year both in adjoining Sumter County, Ala. and in nearby Tennessee.

In Knoxville last month, police said they found racial slurs spray-painted on the charred walls of a church after it had been attacked with a Molotov cocktail. It was the fifth suspicious fire reported at a black church in Tennessee within the past year.

For many people, the attacks conjured up dark memories of the most violent days of the civil rights movement, when black churches in the South were burned.

"The fires at the churches in Alabama and Tennessee resurrect historically painful memories among African Americans," Henderson said in the letter. "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."

State and local law enforcement officials and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms also are conducting separate investigations into the attacks. But Henderson said there is also a "compelling need" for Justice Department involvement, because of the possibility of civil rights violations.

In a phone interview, Henderson said "the inquiry could help to confirm or dispel the prevailing suspicions that the fires are the overt product of racial bigotry and purposeful intimidation."

Back to the Top

NationsBank Offers Up to $500,000 for Information on Church Blazes

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 12 1996; Page A18
The Washington Post

In NationsBank Corp.'s back yard, black churches are being torched.

So NationsBank has pledged to pay $500,000, as much as $50,000 for each of as many as 10 incidents, for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the apparent arson attacks.

"As a large national banking company based in the South, we are deeply troubled by the recent wave of apparent arsons affecting black churches across the country, especially the South and Southwest," said Hugh L. McColl Jr., NationsBank chairman and chief executive. "These acts are intolerable and outrageous, and we want to assist law enforcement officials in putting those responsible behind bars."

Last week, a fire destroyed a 93-year-old sanctuary near Charlotte, N.C., a short drive from NationsBank's headquarters. Authorities estimate that more than 30 black and multiracial churches have been set ablaze in the South and Southwest over 18 months.

Many of the fires have occurred in NationsBank's core market -- west to Texas, south to Florida and northeast to Maryland. The banking company is the nation's fifth-largest, with more than $194 billion in assets. It had $1.95 billion in profit last year.

NationsBank's reward fund could be the largest contribution by any one company thus far in a growing effort to help in the investigation. Marketing, ethics and banking experts called the company's move extremely unusual and cited it as one of the best examples of corporate responsibility.

"I think what NationsBank is doing is wonderful and a great example other financial institutions should follow," said Morris Dees, chief counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. "It is important that southern businesses especially show that the actions of bigots don't represent the views of all southern people."

Further, Dees called on the governors of the nine states where the fires have occurred to create reward funds of at least $100,000 each.

But is NationsBank's gesture one of corporate responsibility or a publicity ploy?

Company officials said the offering is just the right thing to do in the communities where they do business.

In fact, senior executives approved the reward idea within 30 minutes after it was suggested last Friday, according to Peter Davis, a NationsBank spokesman.

"We haven't even thought through all the administrative details of how the reward fund will work in principle," Davis said. "This is our response to a sense of genuine outrage."

Many experts say even if NationsBank's motives are not entirely altruistic, it doesn't matter.

"To me this is an especially brilliant move for NationsBank," said Raj Sisodia, an associate professor of marketing at George Mason University. "This is very creative on their part and will have a significant benefit for the community. It's an example of a corporation acting in a socially responsible way, and if it pays off for them, so what?"

Banking experts said NationsBank's move could go a long way toward cleaning up bankers' image. Banks have been attacked for consolidations that have left thousands without jobs. Institutions have been criticized for increasing fees and for maintaining a spotty record of lending to minorities and low-income people.

"There is a vast amount of criticism that has accompanied the banking community," said Edward Furash of Furash & Company, a Washington-based financial consulting company. "But the action by NationsBank is clearly a demonstration to the Afro-American community that all institutions are not callous to their problems."

Back to the Top

U.S. Historic Trust Puts Black Churches On Endangered List

By Stephen C. Fehr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 18, 1996; Page A03
The Washington Post

One of the nation's leading historical preservation organizations announced a campaign yesterday to provide financial and technical support to more than two dozen southern black churches that have been hit in the recent rash of arson fires.

The Washington-based National Trust for Historic Preservation said in announcing its annual list of the 11 "most endangered" historic places that it would make the churches its 12th selection.

"We are taking this unprecedented step because of the urgency to mobilize support for some of the most significant community institutions in America," said National Trust President Richard Moe, who pledged an undetermined amount in loans and other aid to communities with black churches that have been damaged.

Intentionally set fires have destroyed about 30 black churches across the South in the last 18 months. Three federal agencies are investigating them, and President Clinton has denounced the fires. A black church in southeastern North Carolina was destroyed early yesterday, but authorities did not know whether that fire was arson.

Other organizations are joining the cause. NationsBank was one of the first to put up $500,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of people responsible for the attacks.

The National Trust's list of endangered historic places is intended to alert communities to threats from demolition, neglect, lack of funding and sprawl-type development -- "but never, until now, the danger of arson," Moe said. The 250,000-member group is perhaps best known in this area for helping to force the Walt Disney Co. to scrap its plan for a theme park in western Prince William County.

Also on the trust's list is the Sotterley Plantation, a circa 1710 plantation near Hollywood, Md., in St. Mary's County. Descendants of a slave and a slave owner are trying to keep the remaining buildings of the plantation open to the public. But the buildings are deteriorating.

Central High School in Little Rock, which got national attention when it was integrated in 1957, also was on the list. It suffers from structural damage.

The list, which changes every year with limited success stories, also contains the Knight water-powered foundry in Sutter Creek, Calif.; adobe churches of New Mexico; the historic structures of Glacier National Park, in Montana; the 71-year-old Uptown Theatre in Chicago; the Harry S. Truman historic district in Independence, Mo.; the East End historic district of Newburgh, N.Y.; Wentworth by the Sea hotel in New Castle, N.H.; the East Broad Top Railroad in Huntingdon County, Pa.; and the town of Petoskey, Mich., which is threatened by sprawling development.

Back to the Top

Christian Coalition Plans to Cooperate With Black Churches to Squelch Fires

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 19, 1996; Page A06
The Washington Post

The head of the conservative today said his group would join forces with black Christians to stem the wave of suspicious fires sweeping black churches in the South and to help the affected congregations raise money to rebuild.

Ralph Reed, executive director of the group, which claims 100,000 member churches, said he hoped his promise would be the first step toward a long-term working relationship with black churches, which he acknowledged have previously enjoyed little support from the mostly white congregations that make up much of the Christian Coalition. Reed also apologized for the white evangelical church, which he said was on the "sidelines" or on "the wrong side" of many racial issues during the turbulent civil rights years.

"We come today bearing the burden of that history with broken hearts, a repentant spirit and ready hands to fight this senseless violence," Reed said. He was in Atlanta to meet with black pastors whose churches have been hit by the recent wave of suspicious fires.

That history prompted several civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to boycott today's meeting because they viewed the coalition's outreach as a cynical effort to boost its standing among blacks even as it pushes a conservative agenda that many blacks say has helped fuel the climate of hate feeding the church fires.

"It took 30 years for them to figure out they were wrong about the '60s," said Nelson B. Rivers III, southeast region director of the NAACP, who attended the meeting. "Will it take them 30 years to realize they are wrong now?"

The coalition, whose membership is less than 5 percent African American, has been making an effort in recent years to reach out to the black community, holding sessions on "minority outreach" at its annual conferences. Coalition leaders maintain that the majority of churchgoing African Americans actually agree with white conservative Christians who oppose homosexuality and abortion, and favor school prayer.

Reed and other white evangelical Christian leaders have made clear that they are aware their churches have to overcome centuries of suspicion in the black community. At its annual meeting last year, for instance, the Southern Baptist Convention, which was born of the split between North and South over slavery, apologized for condoning racism and failing to support the civil rights movement.

Reed said today the Christian Coalition will be asking its member churches to take up a special collection on July 14, with the aim of raising $1 million to help rebuild the dozens of burned churches. The group also is making money available for motion detectors, alarms, floodlights and smoke detectors for rural churches that are most vulnerable to arson. In addition, Reed promised to use the clout of his organization to put pressure on any insurance companies that cancel fire coverage for burned churches.

Previously, the Christian Coalition posted a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any church arsonist.

The pastors of black churches that have been destroyed or damaged by fire also have been courted by the the National Council of Churches, the New York City-based alliance of 33 Protestant and Orthodox denominations, including most of the nation's African American denominations. Last week, the council brought about 25 black pastors to Washington and announced a drive to raise $2 million to rebuild their burned buildings.

The pastors at today's meeting with Reed said they were happy for any help, regardless of where it came from.

"To be honest, the Christian Coalition has stepped up in places where our people haven't," said the Rev. James Freeman, associate pastor of Sweet Home Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La., which was damaged by fire in February. "I haven't seen Reverend Lowery offer us any financial help, or prayer, for that matter."

Late Monday two more black churches burned down, this time in rural northeastern Mississippi. Authorities said they did not know whether the suspicious blazes at churches just four miles apart in Kossuth were related to each other or to the string of other southern church fires.

Staff writer Laurie Goodstein contributed to this report.

Back to the Top

No Linkage Found in Black Church Arsons

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 22 1996; Page A08
The Washington Post

Federal law enforcement officials said yesterday that they have found no evidence of a widespread conspiracy linking dozens of arsons and cases of vandalism in black churches across the South, although some incidents appear related and others have been traced to members of white supremacist groups.

Speaking at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the church arsons, officials from the Justice and Treasury departments said investigation of the suspicious church fires is a high priority. According to Justice Department figures, there have been 28 arson attacks on African American churches, mainly in the South, in the past 17 months. Civil rights groups say as many as 45 black churches have been attacked since 1990.

"The numbers are chilling," said Deval L. Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil rights. "We are facing an epidemic of terror."

Patrick said 200 agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) are investigating the cases, and are slowly making progress in unraveling them. Nearly a quarter of the church arsons reported to the Justice Department in 1995 and 1996 have been resolved, Patrick said.

While some of the fires have proven not to be crimes, in at least several cases investigators tied racist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Faction and skinheads, to the church burnings. Federal officials insisted yesterday that they have been responding vigorously to the church fires, but many black community leaders have been critical of the pace and intensity of the effort, saying the Clinton administration needed to make it more high profile.

"Is it any wonder that we are outraged that law enforcement agencies insist on denying the racist nature of these attacks on the soul of the black community -- our churches?" the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said at yesterday's hearing.

Lowery blamed the fires on an atmosphere of growing intolerance in which strong political rhetoric has been leveled against affirmative action, the federal government and welfare recipients, pitting them as enemies of working Americans, anxious about their economic future.

Some members of the Judiciary Committee also expressed skepticism about whether the federal agencies involved in the church arson investigations -- in particular the ATF -- want to pursue these cases aggressively. They noted 10 ATF agents were disciplined not long ago for taking part in the annual national law enforcement gathering known as the "Good O' Boy" roundups, which featured overtly racist skits and other acts.

"People like myself are suspicious of law enforcement because we have not always been served well," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who is black.

Ron Daniels, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a group that has tracked the church arsons over the last few years, said in an interview that the Clinton administration was shying away from making the church burnings a major issue for political reasons.

"They don't want to deal in this '96 election," Daniels said. "I think they want to keep race out of this election."

Patrick, however, told the committee members that proving a link among arson investigations is very tricky. "Investigation of fires is always difficult because evidence burns," Patrick said. "In many cases, we are literally sifting through ash for clues."

Pointing out that several of the fires have been ruled accidental, Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) said he was satisfied that the federal law enforcement agencies were doing everything they could. He said that it was premature to conclude that a racist conspiracy was at work.

"There is no way of knowing until an investigation is concluded and the perpetrators identified whether the motivation for the arson was racial hatred, personal financial profit, intra-congregational disputes or something else," Hyde said.

Back to the Top

Fanning the Flames of Racial Intolerance?

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 12 1996; Page A01
The Washington Post

Lee Davis is certain the South has come too far to ever return to its shameful past, when blacks studied in segregated schools from secondhand textbooks, played on rutted and unlit ballfields and lived amid the terror meted out by white men in hoods.

But his confidence has been shaken in the last year by suspicious fires that have destroyed two black churches within a half-hour drive of this scruffy, rural outpost, part of an epidemic of church fires below the Mason-Dixon Line, Like many blacks in the South, Davis is worried that a new era of intolerance is unfolding.

"Some people seem to want go back to the old days and the old ways," said Davis, a local store owner. But blacks, he said, "don't want to go back."

There have been at least 32 suspicious fires reported at black churches across the South in the past 18 months, the largest number of them in South Carolina. In addition, there have been attacks at a mosque and a Hispanic church in the state.

Some 200 federal agents are helping local authorities investigate the fires, but most of them remain unsolved. President Clinton is scheduled to visit Greeleyville's recently rebuilt Mt. Zion AME Church today.

But the church burnings are just one part of a brew that has begun to make people here feel vulnerable: a Ku Klux Klan memorabilia store has opened and recruiting signs for the KKK sprouted practically in the ashes of the Mt. Zion burning; the Confederate battle flag continues to fly over the state Capitol despite the protests of blacks; a state trooper brutalized a black female motorist; and anti-government militia groups, spouting white supremacist ideology, have become more visible.

All of this comes at a time when the country seems to be growing more conservative, with politicians from Congress to state capitals going after government programs, such as affirmative action, that have been strongly supported by many blacks.

"I feel like we're reaping what we've sown," said Deval L. Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil rights. "If you listen to talk radio, if you listen to some of the rhetoric in Congress . . . you can begin to see ways in which civic leadership in this country is not encouraging people to see their stake in each other's struggle."

But it is clear that the church burnings, so redolent of the bombings of black houses of worship during the civil rights era three decades ago, have unsettled blacks across the South.

Precise motives have not been established in many of the fires, which often have occurred in old wooden frame churches virtually hidden away off rural roads, though in some cases whites with links to the KKK and other racist groups have been arrested.

"I have no idea why somebody would want to burn a church," said Rebecca Wagner, a 55-year member of Rising Star Baptist Church, in rural Greensboro, Ala., which was torched last week, one of five attacks on black churches in the state this year. "Things are good between the races . . . considering how they used to be."

South Carolina has had the most church arsons, followed by Tennessee and then Alabama. But few states have been immune. This week, two churches burned in Texas, the first incidents reported there. "I am shocked and appalled and I guess frightened to think this could be connected with those crimes across the southern United States, because in Greenville, Texas, we feel a bit protected" said Sue Ann Harting, the town's mayor.

What makes the current atmosphere of anxiety complex is that it comes as many southern states have made remarkable progress in race relations. In South Carolina this has contributed to the state's ability to lure huge corporate investment, business leaders said. Fuji, BMW and Michelin are among the corporations that have built large manufacturing plants in South Carolina in recent years.

The new investment is attracting a mix of Asians and other new residents who were once rare in South Carolina. Blacks are integrating police departments and a few are beginning to trickle into corporate board rooms. And a growing number of black elected officials are serving on town governments and in the legislature.

There is even hope rising from the ashes of the church fires. Whites and blacks are coming together to help clear the sites of burned churches and to contribute to their rebuilding.

"I think there are all kinds of symbols and things down here that allow misunderstanding to blossom," said Anthony T. Grant, who is black, a senior vice president for NationsBank, and chairman of the Governor's Commission on Race Relations. "But I think just the fact that I am here suggests things are improving."

But amid the undeniable progress, the state's most passionate political debates continue to revolve around race. There was the divisive battle supported by the state's conservative governor to keep the Confederate battle flag flying atop the State House. There have been pitched debates over welfare reform, school vouchers and a law allowing people to carry concealed weapons -- debates that blacks have felt resonated with racial undertones.

"There is a political tone here that condones racism," said Wilma Neal, a political organizer. "Whenever they talk about problems in this state, they seem to have a black face."

Even in small towns along South Carolina's winding back roads, people quickly mention the KKK store and recount an incident in which a white state trooper was videotaped dragging a black motorist from her car and shouting obscenities at her. And bumper stickers emblazoned with the Confederate flag and reading "Keep it Flying" are appearing on many cars.

"There is a lot of disappointment and insult," said Rep. James E. Clayburn (D), South Carolina's first black congressman since Reconstruction. "The Confederate battle flag is insulting but it doesn't frighten anybody. . . . This stuff just feeds all the feeble-minded people out here who look for somebody to blame for their ills."

Last week, South Carolina Gov. David M. Beasley (R) visited three churches and a mosque that had been torched to announce formation of a $50,000 reward fund for information leading to convictions in any of the state's unsolved church arsons.

While Beasley, a conservative who has enjoyed relatively strong support among black voters, condemned the fires and vowed to apprehend and punish those responsible. But he played down any suggestion that the state's racial climate was a factor and dismissed suggestions that issues such as whether the state should continue to fly the Confederate battle flag -- something it has done since the school integration battles of 1962, and something Beasley supports as a symbol of the state's heritage -- have any effect on that climate. "That should never be justification for anybody to burn a church," he said.

But outside the Islamic Center & Masjid of Greenville, which was burned to the ground last October but is well on its way to being rebuilt, Ayman Ahmad disagreed.

"Tell me," he said, "what does that flag symbolize, except hate? Just pure hate."

Ahmad, 40, was born in Lebanon but has lived in South Carolina since college. He said he has not experienced any bigotry -- "not in my face at least" -- but lately has sensed an unmistakable mood of intolerance in anti-immigrant political sentiment and in the new visibility of extremist groups.

"In the last four years the rhetoric has been turned up," said Ahmad, a senior laboratory technician. "We're described as needy people who landed here in their back yard and took their jobs." He said that kind of talk "gives too much weight to the KKK and neo-Nazis and these other hate groups. It makes it seem like they have a cause."

Kenneth Kennedy fled Greeleyville as a young man only to return to what he was sure the New South 15 years ago. "I saw my friends doing well, things seemed to have changed," he said, in explaining why he returned.

And all in all, he said, things have been fine. At 53, Kennedy is a successful businessman, selling hardware, used cars and mini-storage space. He is a member of the legislature. And the races certainly get along much better now than when he was a child who sometimes was chased home by whites -- even if the subject of race seems to lurk just below the surface.

"The people that I talked with are baffled," Kennedy said of the fires. "Were they racially motivated? Or was it that these guys came through on a spur?

In the hamlet of Lane, S.C., Murrie Beaufort, a middle-aged man who has spent his whole life there, said the new intolerance is evident in small ways: in the personal conversations, in the sharp tone of grievances expressed by local white residents. Still, he said, he never thought that sentiment would be expressed by burning churches.

"I didn't think that in 1996 you would have church burnings," Beaufort said. "People are acting differently, talking differently. You can't pinpoint it, but you can tell that the good relations are dwindling away."

© 1996 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top