Why ‘Unconnected’ Church Burnings Can Still Be Racist


Memorial services for thee slain civil rights workers are framed through the ruins of the burned-out Mt. Zion African American church. Services climaxed a 12-mile trek from Philadelphia to the church ruins. The burned-out church was the last place the three rights workers were seen alive a year ago on June 21, 1965 in Philadelphia. (AP Photo)

When news broke late Tuesday evening that yet another black church — Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Greelyville, South Carolina — was on fire, the Internet erupted with outrage. People on Twitter noted that Mount Zion, which was also burned in the 1990s by members of the KKK, is the seventh predominantly African American church to burn to the ground in the past few weeks, and began venting their frustration using the hashtag #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches.

In response to the anger over church burnings that has been building for weeks, some media outlets, such as the Washington Post’s The Fix blog, have contended that attacks on black churches are not actually on the rise, suggesting the media is giving unwarranted coverage to the fires in aftermath of the recent shooting of nine black church goers in Charleston, South Carolina.

Along similar lines, the New York Times published a story on Tuesday purporting that there was no evidence that the arsons were hate crimes, citing investigators who said that even the intentional fires were merely acts of “vandalism.” The Times story also included quotes from inspectors claiming most of the fires are not believed to be “connected,” insofar as they aren’t thought to be part of a organized campaign of hate by one individual or group.

Granted, some of the fires do appear to be accidents, and the cause of the incident in Greelyville is still unclear. But the need to find an explicit “connection” between the fires may be misguided: When it comes to church burnings, many African Americans see the difference between an official hate crime and an act of “vandalism” as an issue of semantics, especially given the long, painful history of racists intentionally — and largely independently — setting fire to black churches all over the country. This context is the lived experience of many black Americans, and helps shed light on why — regardless of whether these fires are set accidentally or intentionally — so many are expressing dismay at the apparent rash of burnings, which prompted the NAACP to call on churches to beef up their security.

Indeed, black churches in the United States have endured arson attacks from whites almost since their inception. Philadelphia, for instance, was the site of multiple attacks on black churches from 1825 to 1850: In 1834, two black churches were razed by an angry white mob, and in 1825, locals poured caustic red pepper into a stove during a black worship service, triggering a desperate stampede to escape the church that left four people dead. Whites in Cincinnati also rioted in African American areas of the city in 1829, burning buildings and institutions owned by black people — including, of course, black churches.

Historians and commentators argue that black churches have traditionally been targeted by racist whites partially for the emotional impact of destroying a sanctuary, but also because of their importance as a locus of networking, culture, and political organizing for African Americans. This helps explain why church burnings (and bombings) were so commonplace in the South during the 1960s, when Southern racists set black houses of worship aflame in a failed attempt to intimidate civil rights rights leaders and disrupt their efforts to mobilize. This includes the church arson that inspired the Academy Award-winning film Mississippi Burning: On June 16, 1964, members of the Ku Klux Klan beat parishioners of Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Longdale, Mississippi as they left worship, hoping to capture civil rights activist Michael Schwerner, who they thought was attending the service. When they couldn’t find him, they burned the church to the ground in frustration. (Schwerner and two other activists were killed a few days later when they were ambushed attempting to visit the site of the burned church.)

There were other horrific assaults on black churches in the 1960s, but many African Americans note that the recent attacks have more in common with a string of burnings that occurred in the mid-1990s. Starting in 1995 and extending into 1996, the South was struck by a wave of church arsons, with 37 black houses of worship being destroyed in “suspicious fires” in the span of just 18 months. One of these churches was Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Greelyville, which was torched in 1995 by two members of the local KKK. Some people suspected a mass conspiracy behind the burnings, but reports soon emerged that the perpetrators were largely unconnected, with one band of Georgia teenagers blamed for as many as 90 burglaries, burnings and acts of vandalism at churches (including some white churches) during that time. According to state officials, their motive was frighteningly simplistic: “If they didn’t find any money [when robbing at house of worship], they’d pay them back by vandalizing the church or burning it,” one investigator said.

The government did react to these fires, as Congress passed the Church Arson Prevention Act in 1996, which increased the penalty for burning religious property “because of race, color, or ethnic characteristics,” and then-President Bill Clinton created the National Church Arson Task Force to find a connection between the burnings. But the now-defunct task force (whose duties have since been replaced by the ATF) essentially ended media coverage of the burnings when it concluded that not all of the fires were motivated by racism, and that some could be classified as things other than hate crimes — including vandalism.

It would perhaps be easy use this information to dismiss racism as motivation for these attacks. But, as Stanford U.S. history professor James Campbell noted in 1996, the disconnected burnings — both then and now — are still a form of racism.

“Far easier to abide the idea of a tight-knit group of racist fanatics than to accept the alternative that we live in a time when a substantial number of individuals, unconnected with one another or with organized white supremacist groups, regard burning black churches as a plausible act, worthy of emulation,” Campbell wrote.

Some, such as Robert Lee Mitchell of The Independent, have noted that the same unwillingness to fully comprehend the racist nature for many of the fires in the 1990s — both by the media and investigators — is being replicated today.

“In the coming days authorities will continue to investigate the church fires, and the media will finally take note of this growing problem,” Mitchell writes. “Yet the story has already been written by history. The unwillingness to connect the dots, just like in 1996, says more about how little America has changed, and how much more work needs to be done if we are going to be the ‘Shining city on the hill’ that politicians often offer when discussing American exceptionalism.”