New Wave of Attacks Afflicts Black Churches in the South
At 4 a.m. on Jan. 8, the phone rang at the home of the Rev. David Upton. The urgent message from one of his congregants: “The church is on fire!”
The pastor anxiously negotiated his way through half a foot of snow, only to find the two-story brick building engulfed in flames. For seven hours, he stood and watched the increasingly futile efforts to save it.
“I thought of all the memories--the services, the weddings, the children baptized,” Upton said. “Our child-care center was on track to open in a month. Everything was just going up in smoke.”
When the fire settled down to a smolder, he saw something that sickened him even more. On a back door had been painted: “Die N----- Die!” and “White Is Right.”
“It was something that seemed ancient,” Upton said.
Three months later, just before Easter Sunday, as bulldozers piled up the remains of the Inner City Church, Elijah Grake, 74, poked around the fringes of the rubble, carrying on a dialogue as he searched for anything to salvage.
“I just don’t understand it. It’s a mystery to me why anyone would do this,” he said.
He glanced around quickly and then lowered his voice: “I’ve been around a long time. I’m an old Army veteran . . . served in Europe in the war. I don’t need to talk about integration, racists or anything like that.
“I think it’s the devil that done this. The devil trying to convince the Christian people to turn away,” he confided. “Well, they have to hold on. Hold on faster and stronger than ever.”
Standing tall and undamaged over the debris left by the estimated 18 Molotov cocktails, the gasoline and the kerosene was a sign depicting a black hand clasping a white one. It carried this slogan:
“Together We Can Make a Change.”
Like the return of a biblical plague, predominantly black churches in the South are enduring a wave of vandalism, burnings and firebombings reminiscent of the attacks that took place during the height of the anti-integration era more than 30 years ago--the most notable being the 1964 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four schoolgirls.
Though no one has been killed or injured in the current wave, federal agents are investigating 23 church fires that have been set since January 1995--16 since Christmas alone.
A separate list expanded to include vandalism--compiled by the Center for Democratic Renewal, which monitors white supremacist groups and hate crimes from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta--shows that 45 Southern black-congregation churches or lodges have been attacked from January 1990 through February 1996.
“When you pull them together, when they start adding up--10, 15, 25, 40--you realize that something is going on here far beyond isolated incidents,” said the Rev. MacCharles Jones of the National Council of Churches.
Federal and local investigators say they lack evidence of any concerted campaign of what some black leaders are calling racial “domestic terrorism.’
The Center for Democratic Renewal says no arrests have been made in 33 of the 45 attacks it recorded. But the 25 people arrested in the other cases all were white males aged 15 to 45, the center said.
Some have ties to white supremacist groups and many have expressed racist views, but investigators say they lack evidence of any conspiracy linking them.
Three white men prosecuted in connection with vandalizing three western Alabama churches with a sledgehammer in 1994 said they had been drinking heavily beforehand. In Columbia, Tenn., three men sentenced in the 1995 arsons of two black churches also said they were drinking heavily, and one of them was outraged by interracial couples.
“I’m not sure that there is a common thread that links these fires,” said Barrown Lankster, the black district attorney who prosecuted the Alabama case. “They may be copycat incidents, by individuals of the same kind of mentality.”
Most of the fires have taken place in the middle of the night in poor, rural areas, destroying a joyful refuge.
“It’s a cruel act, and those who do it understand the cruelty behind the act,” said Melissa Fay Greene, whose new book “The Temple Bombing” recounts the attack by racists on an Atlanta temple in 1958--a time, she writes, when “the homemade bombs of segregationists were going off practically on a biweekly basis.”
“They are attacking the soul of the black community,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Lowery, like other veterans of the civil rights movement, implored blacks not to be cowed.
“We’ve come too far, cried too many tears . . . to go back,” Lowery said in March at an Atlanta meeting that brought together civil rights leaders and heads of the attacked churches to compare notes.
The group is compiling information and plans to develop a legal strategy aimed at seeking restoration damages from culprits. Also under discussion are a demonstration in Washington and possibly demanding a meeting with Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.
Reno said in February that the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the Justice Department’s civil rights division are investigating. More than 100 ATF agents are involved, the bureau says.
John Schmidt, an associate attorney general, said recently that the investigation “has the highest level of attention.”
Upton and other leaders of the burned-out Knoxville church, however, have complained about federal investigators’ tactics, saying that they have been interrogated repeatedly and feel harassed, even as the case remains unsolved.
It didn’t help that two ATF agents were removed from the investigation task force last month for their roles in “Good Ol’ Boy Roundups” in Tennessee, raucous gatherings of law officers with racist goings-on.
Some blacks also are frustrated about what they see as a lack of national outrage over the attacks.
The Rev. C.T. Vivian of Atlanta speaks of an overall mood of passivity nationally that he attributes to a preference by many Americans not to believe such racial hatred still lingers after the advances of the past.
He and other black leaders see political debate on affirmative action and welfare as subtle coding that contributes to the climate for racism.
“People don’t want to believe it. Passivity is what allows racism,” said Vivian, 71. Recalling the attacks on churches of the civil rights era, Vivian said: “It didn’t work then and it won’t work now.”
Lankster also said he doubted that people would allow the attacks to drive a new wedge between the races.
“This has not dampened my enthusiasm and my optimism about the progress that has been made in the South in my lifetime,” he said.
Last month, the mostly white Christian Coalition began offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to arrests and convictions in the church fires.
Ralph Reed, the group’s executive director, called the fires an “attack upon the entire faith community” and said evangelical Christians wouldn’t repeat mistakes made when they “looked the other way” during the racist attacks of the ‘60s.
“There are few crimes as sensitive or important as the torching of a house of worship, especially in ethnically identifiable communities,” Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin said recently. “We are striving to earn the trust of those most deeply affected by these tragedies. We will not be satisfied until all . . . cases are solved.”
At a special service in College Park, Ga., called in response to the church fires, the Rev. Alvin Anderson took to the pulpit after the guitar-drum-keyboard combo and the swaying, arm-waving choir finally resisted the calls for yet another encore chorus.
Anderson chose a passage from the Book of Acts for the theme of his sermon. He read the account of how the apostle Paul, reaching for a piece of wood, had a viper fasten its fangs onto his hand. He shook it off without harm, the Scripture says, awing those who witnessed it.
Anderson came to his point: “If you cannot shake it, you will not make it!” He repeated, and the worshipers, first nodding, then smiling broadly, joined in: “If you cannot SHAKE it, you will not MAKE it! You must go THROUGH something, to get TO something!”
Anderson’s Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Columbia, Tenn., has been fully restored after a January 1995 arson attack. White neighbors helped with donations and work to restore the two burned churches there.
In Knoxville, the Inner City Church, a multiracial Baptist institution, has been meeting in a high school auditorium. Attendance--400 to 500 people--is as strong as ever, Upton says.
One of his associate pastors is football player Reggie White, a Green Bay Packers star who has helped fund Inner City’s ministries and projects, which include loans to provide housing for the poor.
Since White surprised sportswriters poised to interview him about the National Football Conference championship game in January by telling them of the attack on his church, about a quarter of a million dollars in donations have rolled in from the people of Wisconsin. Nearly $100,000 more has been raised locally in a multiracial effort.
“We have stuck together, ever since Day One,” Upton says. “We’re saying we can’t look back. We’ve got to look forward. Our church is more than a building.”
Similarly, in rural Bells, Tenn., the Johnson Grove Missionary Baptist Church is being rebuilt after a January 1995 fire--an attack that remains unsolved.
The destroyed church, built in the 19th century by black farm laborers, was in a isolated field off a gravel road; the new one will be on a main highway.
“I think we’ve recovered and are looking forward to rebuilding,” said the Rev. Walter Thomas. “I really don’t know why anybody did that, but we have received strong support from the white community. If the purpose was to divide the races, they have not succeeded.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Churches Are Burning, 1996
A U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms list of suspected arson fires in Southern black-congregation churches this year:
Jan. 8: Inner City Church, Knoxville, Tenn.
Jan. 11: Little Mount Zion Baptist and Mount Zoar Baptist, Boligee, Ala.
Feb. 1: Cypress Grove Baptist, St. Paul’s Free Baptist and Thomas Chapel Benevolent Society, all in East Baton Rouge Parish, La.
Feb. 1: Sweet Home Baptist, Baker, La.
Feb. 21: Glorious Church of God in Christ, Richmond, Va.
Feb. 28: New Liberty Baptist, Tyler, Ala.
March 5: St. Paul AME, Hatley, Miss.
March 27: Gay’s Hill Baptist, Millen, Ga.
March 30: El Bethal, Sataria, Miss.
April 11: St. Charles Baptist, Paincourtville, La.
April 13: Rosemary Baptist, Barnwell County, S.C. (two predominantly white churches also were burned the same weekend).
April 26: Effingham Baptist, Effingham, S.C.
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