The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
Black Churches:
Once Again, the Fires This Time

Aug 16, 1996

In the 18 months between January 1995 and June 1996, there were 64 cases of arson or suspicious fires at black churches. In the first 6 months of 1996, the number of fires has averaged more than one per week. According to a USA TODAY report (June 28), there have already been more arson fires in the first six months of 1996 than in any recent full year. In 1996, there have already been 37 black churches torched, while in all of 1995 there were only 27; 25 in 1994 and 17 in 1993. These fires have been concentrated mainly in two rural regions of the Southeast. In western Tennessee and northwestern Alabama there have been 13 church burnings since January 1995. In the Carolinas, there have been 30 cases, averaging one per month since 1993.

The authorities have maintained that there is no evidence that these fires were carried out by a national conspiracy. But like any crisis, these fires illuminate the attacks in this country which so often take the form of racism - and not just from the KKK or other right-wing terrorists. And once again, the question is posed of how those who are attacked can best defend themselves.

The Government Investigation

On January 29, the NAACP formally requested that the U.S. Justice Department investigate the fires. In its letter, the NAACP said that there appeared to be a "discernible pattern which links the fires, including the surprisingly large number." The Justice Department responded that, along with the FBI, it had already begun an investigation in late December, before the department received the letter. Janet Reno assured the NAACP, "We want to make sure that we pursue the cases, make sure that we do everything right, consistent with where the evidence leads."

So, how did the investigation proceed?

During the first two weeks in January, four black churches in northwestern Alabama and four more in nearby western Tennessee were burnt to the ground. It was clear that these fires were no accident. Moreover, there were all the usual indicators of racist intent. These fires came on the heels of the January 4 sentencing of two white men convicted of vandalizing three black churches in February 1995. The men had gone to those churches and smashed pews, windows and kitchen equipment with a sledgehammer. They were sentenced by a black judge to six months in jail and were ordered to pay $30,000 in restitution. The day of the sentencing, the judge had his telephone lines cut and a shotgun fired into his house.

Yet, the FBI undertook an investigation of... the members of the church, in order to try to prove that the fires were committed by black teenagers. The Reverend James Carter, a former county commissioner and assistant pastor at the Little Zion Baptist Church, which had been reduced to ashes on January 11, described how the FBI came to his house and "started asking my uncle, who has since died, all kinds of questions. They were even trying to get him to sign his name. But he wasn't even coherent enough to pick up a pencil." (Village Voice, July 16) In fact, said Carter, the FBI was more interested in investigating old accusations by Alabama Attorney General Jeff Sessions of black voter fraud, than the arson.

The FBI carried out a similar kind of investigation in Tennessee at the Inner City Church in Knoxville, by far the biggest church to be torched in the last two years. This interracial church has a congregation of 400, a radio station and a $200,000 child care center. On January 8 a Molotov cocktail set the church on fire. On the outer wall, the arsonist had scrawled racial slurs. Inside the building, investigators found 18 unexploded cocktails. A week before the fire, associate pastor Reggie White, the all-pro defensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers, received a phone call warning that there might be an attack of some kind. The church also received a bomb threat. Before the firebombing, police were given a threatening letter signed by a group called "Skinheads for White Justice" that denounced interracial churches, schools, marriages, etc.

But, as in Alabama, this evidence was ignored while investigators focused on the church membership itself. So far, they've subpoenaed church records and questioned all 400 church members, putting many through lie detector tests. They've sifted through financial records, questioning church leaders about travel expenses.

These kinds of investigations were not the exception. On May 21, 1996, the Rev. Dr. Mac Charles Jones testified before the Congressional Black Caucus. Jones had just headed a delegation from the 51 million member National Council of Churches (NCC) that gathered first-hand testimony from pastors, deacons and members of many of the churches that were firebombed. This is how Dr. Jones summed up the NCC delegation's findings:

"The 17 persons so far arrested and convicted for these crimes are all white males between the ages of 15 and 45 with several of them admitting to be members of such racist groups as the Aryan Faction, Skinheads for White Justice and the Ku Klux Klan. We suspect, however, that many more perpetrators of these crimes have not been arrested and brought to justice because the investigations, to date, have focused on the pastors and members of the burned churches rather than on the violent history of the above-mentioned groups."Indeed many law enforcement authorities at the local, state and federal levels continue to deny any connections among the several firebombing incidents and say they doubt a conspiracy or motivation based on racism. Moreover, the NCC has been provided with testimony from some of the affected pastors that racial epithets scrawled onto the outside walls of churches which remained partially standing were immediately painted over by law enforcement officials without the consent of the church."In addition to several churches in Tennessee, private homes and a lodge in Clarksville were firebombed and shotgunned. We recall that it was in the hills of Tennessee where the 'white-only' "Good Ole Boys Round- up" meeting took place last year and among the participants were known agents of the Treasury Department's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division (ATF), one of the federal agencies investigating the church bombings."...We encountered a unanimous dismay that the investigations are concentrating on pastors and parishioners, implying that they set their own fire. Subtle implications are made that it was for the insurance money, even though many of the churches had no insurance policies... Without exception, the victims... said they felt intimidated by the very forces they had hoped would provide them with protection...Although many of the pastors and other church leaders have received death threats, there have been no investigations.... Furthermore, there is evidence emerging that the 50-plus reported incidents are only a small indication of the number of attacks actually taking place around the country... "It is our contention that these are not isolated incidents but rather disparate pieces in a pattern of hate crimes that have been under-reported by the media and over-looked by law enforcement..."Covering up evidence, refusing to investigate the bombings, intimidating and accusing the victims: it is still the same old law enforcement apparatus. And it is still up to its old tricks. A lot of good it did for the NAACP to call on this racist instrument, the Justice Department, to carry out the investigation.

The Politics Behind the Fires

It may never be known to what extent the church fires have been organized by groups like the KKK or Aryan Nation on the one hand, or how many fires may have been carried out by copy cats, or just sick individuals on the other hand.

But undeniably behind the fires is a society that is racist to its core. Certainly, burning down black churches is as old as black churches themselves. During the time of slavery, the slaveowners feared that black people meeting together would plot insurrection. So the gathering together of black people anywhere, including inside churches, was forbidden. The first recorded torching of a black church was in 1822 in South Carolina, almost as soon as black churches were allowed. Almost a century and a half later, during the civil rights movement, black churches were torched because the structures often were used as meeting places for demonstrators fighting to end segregation or to win the vote. The most famous of the firebombings killed 4 black girls in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. (Needless to say, the murderers were never caught that time either.) When that era ended, the fires did not. The black churches were still pictured by racists as the place where black people got together to cheat white people, to get free government cheese, to learn how to sign up for welfare, or to plot to destroy the white race through intermarriage. So, the fires have remained a source of terror and fear, a permanent fixture of the social and political landscape of the rural South.

The Democrats and Republicans may all repeat the mantra of abhorring racism. But their social policies consistently foment and reinforce racism, and this has been especially true in the last couple of years, as their attacks against the working class and poor have increased. Of course, there are some politicians like a Jesse Helms who display their racism openly and provocatively. But most of the others have resorted to code words, whose meaning everyone understands. A major omnibus crime bill was passed in order to "get tough on the criminals," which of course has boiled down to putting more black men in prison and executing more black prisoners, while "ending welfare as we know it" has meant cracking down on "welfare queens," that is, stopping black teenagers "who live in sin" from collecting all that government money. Attacks on affirmative action have been the politicians' way of saying that "unqualified" black people are supposedly taking "qualified" white people's jobs. This is what the Democratic and Republican politicians are being paid to do: appeal to and exploit the prejudices inside the population in order to deflect anger from capitalism, which is ravaging the population, and place it instead on the most oppressed and exploited sectors of the population.

By burning down the black churches, the racists are merely bringing to fruition the racist seed the politicians had planted.

Democrats and Republicans Make Political Hay

Yet, it is to this very political structure that the black organizations, the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the black members of the NCC appeal for help. And both Democrats and Republicans are glad to oblige - in their own way and in their own time, of course.

Black churches had been burning down for 18 months before Clinton suddenly decided to take up the issue and draw national attention to it for the first time. In his June 8 weekly radio address, Clinton declared, "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." At the same time, the Justice Department announced that 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."

Notice, of course, that there is no mention or hint of the anger and frustration from those that the investigators claim to be "protecting."

For the next 10 days, Clinton went through his self-serving charade. He flew to South Carolina to have his picture taken standing by the ruins of a gutted church. On June 18, he held a summit with the governors and attorney generals of Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina and West Virginia, the states most affected by the burnings. On the same day, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to make it "easier" for the Federal investigators to enter a church arson inquiry. A week later, the Senate passed a similar bill by a 98-0 vote. (Of course, the civil rights acts passed over 30 years ago already allowed them to do this whenever they wanted.)

None of this sound and fury changed anything either in the conduct or in the results of the investigations. Once the reporters and news cameras left, the same investigation of the victims continued as usual.

Those who reaped the benefits of this were Clinton and the Democrats who were using the whole operation to shore up a bit of their sagging support among their base of black voters for the fast approaching elections. And, of course, they were aided in this by black organizations like the NAACP and SCLC, which had asked him to do this in the first place.

But Clinton wasn't the only one to try to get in on the action. Ralph Reed, the Executive Director of Pat Robertson's ultra-reactionary Christian Coalition, pledged that his organization would raise at least one million dollars to help rebuild the black churches destroyed by fire. July 14 would be "Racial Reconciliation Sunday" at the 100,000 churches on the coalition's mailing list, and he would ask each of them to take up a special collection to help rebuild the burned churches. And he even added to the drama by publicly "repenting" for the sins of the past. Said Reed, "It is a painful truth that the white evangelical church was not only on the sidelines but in many cases on the wrong side of the most central struggle for social justice in this century."

Of course, all of this may sound strange coming from people whose basic program calls for the most barbaric measures to enforce the growing inequalities of this society. But this announcement did garner Reed and the Christian Coalition, along with their Republican Party fellow travelers, plenty of favorable publicity that was easily worth the million dollars. Beyond that, this move could provide a means for the Christian Coalition to gain ties with conservative elements in some of the black churches which share some basic views, including their religious fundamentalism, their opposition to abortion and their opposition to teaching Darwin's theory of evolution in the public schools.

Thus, while the politicians carry out increasingly brutal policies, imposing ever greater sacrifices and poverty, they cynically fan the flames of racism. Meanwhile, the federal, state and local police agencies enforce this order and persecute and harass the victims of those fires. At the same time, the politicians cynically compete with each other for the black vote on the basis of supposed anti-racist credentials. It is, of course, no surprise that few black people, especially from the working class or poor, bother to vote anymore.

A Fight for the Future

Nothing basic has really changed. A racist government and police force, even though it now occasionally has a few black people in responsible positions, still defends a racist society. And the faith that established organizations like the NAACP or SCLC profess in the government only stands in the way of people doing what really has to be done, which is, first of all, for those under attack to take matters into their own hands. This is all the more vital today. The church fires are a warning of the violence that the worsening economic and social conditions can bring.

One of the most important lessons of the black movement of the 1950s and '60s was that the only protection against this violence is a mobilized population. This doesn't mean mobilized only against the KKK, but against the attacks by the government as well. Today buildings, and not just churches, that are owned and used by black people certainly have to be protected. This can only be done by the community, by organizing to watch, patrol and when necessary to react immediately if, by chance, anything happens. In this way those in power will know that they will pay a price when they try to instigate something.