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President Condemns Arson at Black Churches

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Racial hostility is the driving force” behind dozens of fires that have claimed black churches across the Southern and Mid-Atlantic states in recent months, President Clinton said Saturday. While no evidence of a nationwide conspiracy has been found, he said, the federal government will use its full powers to stop the outbreaks of arson.

With ministers from two of the burned-out churches flanking him, the president said in his weekly radio address, “I have vivid and painful memories of black churches being burned in my own state when I was a child.

“It’s hard to think of a more depraved act of violence than the destruction of a place of worship.”

He added: “I am determined to do everything in my power to get to the bottom of these church burnings as quickly as possible. And no matter how long it takes, no matter where the leads take us, we will devote whatever resources are necessary to solve these crimes.”

Thirty-four suspicious fires were reported this year and 16 last year, at black churches in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

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Most of the fires, eight, have erupted in Tennessee, followed by South Carolina with five. The most recent blaze occurred Thursday in Charlotte, N.C., when a 93-year-old building on the grounds of the Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church burned. It had been used to store old pews, and the congregation worshiped in a new building nearby.

“We do not now have evidence of a national conspiracy,” Clinton said. “But it is clear that racial hostility is the driving force behind a number of these incidents. This must stop.”

More than 200 federal, state and local law enforcement agents are investigating the open cases “in one of the largest criminal investigations of any kind,” the Justice Department said this week. The inquiry also is the federal government’s largest current civil rights probe.

Arrests have been made in five of the 34 fires this year, and one case was determined to be an accident, according to Justice Department records. Six of last year’s cases are being prosecuted and one was ruled accidental.

Two of those arrested are “known members of the Ku Klux Klan,” the president said. “So we are making progress, but we must do more. We must rise up as a national community to safeguard the right of every citizen to worship in safety. That is what America stands for.”

He announced several new steps:

* The administration will support a bipartisan bill offered by Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) “to make it easier to bring federal prosecutions against those who attack houses of worship.” The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on the legislation Tuesday.

* Federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will visit black churches to provide advice and suggestions on maintaining security and guarding against arson.

* A special federal task force will report to Clinton on progress in solving the crimes and “to let me know if there are other actions the federal government can take beyond those underway to stop these crimes.”

* The government will operate a special toll-free number to gather tips about the fires. The number for the public to call is 888-ATF-FIRE (888-283-3473).

“In 1963, all Americans were outraged by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham [Ala.] that took the lives of four precious young children,” Clinton said.

“We must never allow that to happen again. Every family has a right to expect that when they walk into a church or synagogue or mosque each week they will find a house of worship, not the charred remnants of a hateful act done by cowards in the night.”

Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, also called for rapid steps to find and prosecute those responsible for “these vicious acts of hate.”

“These hate crimes are wrong, evil and have no place in the United States of America,” Dole said in a statement.

Watching Clinton deliver his speech in the Oval Office were the Rev. Alvin Anderson, pastor of the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Columbia, Tenn., and the Rev. Terrance Mackey, pastor of the Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, S.C.

Black churches, the president said, have “historically been the center of worship, self-help and community life for millions of families in our country.”

He recalled that last June, Mackey and his daughter “woke to find an ash-scarred field in a spot” where their church had been.

Clinton said the minister “reassured his daughter with these words: He told her, ‘They didn’t burn down the church, they burnt down the building in which we hold church. The church is still inside all of us.’ ”

Mackey’s congregation will march Friday from the site of the fire to a new church building “and all Americans will march with them in spirit,’ the president said.

Asked after the speech about race relations in the United States, the president said things are improving, “but I think there are still pockets of hatred and extremism.”

The “overwhelming majority of American people are appalled” by the church burnings and “they will stand with us in our efforts to find out what happened,” he said.

Racism “is something that can rear its ugly head over and over and over again through the generations” and “we have to stomp it out as soon as we see it,” he said.

Mackey told reporters he was glad the president “is standing behind us on this one.” Mackey said he would not ask church members to patrol a new church building at night because “I would rather count another burned church than a burned body.”


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