Fires of hell in houses of God

Racial bias was by no means the sole motive for the seemingly relentless string of intentionally set fires that have destroyed numerous churches with predominantly black congregations, as well as some white churches. Still, the epidemic of arson, which began in early 1995 and continued with renewed fury throughout much of this year, was enough to grab the attention of Federal officials and galvanize the Government into action.

Reports of new arsons appeared to be leveling off as 1996 wound down, but the damage was already done, as nearly 100 places of worship had been torched since authorities first began tracking the outbreak last year.

In June, as reports of church fires intensified, President Clinton ordered a stepped-up investigation and called on Congress to approve more funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI, the lead Federal agencies probing the blazes. Scores of investigators were added to the teams already assigned to the fires, nearly all of which occurred in the South, and the ATF opened a toll-free hot line to report tips.  Up to 1,000 Federal, state and local investigators were on the job by year’s end, treating each case as a civil-rights violation.

The President also agreed to form a Church Arson Task Force as a joint effort of the Treasury and Justice departments, whose members were to report back to him. Several high-ranking officials, including Attorney General Janet Reno and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, met with black ministers to reassure them that the Government was doing all it could to solve the rash of arsons. The Justice Department also provided arson-prevention funds to areas plagued by church fires. 

Late in the month, Congress sent Clinton a bill that increased penalties for those convicted of setting church fires. The bill, which Clinton supported, expanded Federal law on church arson to include racially motivated fires, doubled the maximum prison sentence to 20 years, and provided $10 million in Federal loan guarantees to help rebuild underinsured churches destroyed by fire.

The Federal Government’s approach meshed with the view of the National Council of Churches, which issued a report in June suggesting that most of the fires were linked to white supremacist groups. However, a two-month investigation by USA Today found no conspiracy by any group to target black churches. The newspaper also found evidence that serial arsonists in two regions of the South might be to blame for the recent surge in fires.

“Outside those clusters, the number of arsons at churches, black or white, is not unusually higher than in recent years,” the newspaper reported June 28. “Some arsons are not even reported. This investigation found 18 more.”

Identifying a pattern that closely followed the range of motives for all arsons, the newspaper said the church fires were set for a variety of reasons, including “teen-age vandalism, public drunkenness, derangement, revenge, insurance or other frauds, and to be sure, open or latent racial hatred. But no single thread runs through the black church arsons.”

The newspaper identified “two well-defined geographic clusters or ‘arson zones’ where black church arsons are up sharply over the last three years. The patterns suggest racial motives.” One area encompassed a 200-mile oval spread over parts of western Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky. The other stretches across North and South Carolina, where the rate of black church fires has tripled since 1993.

To date, according to the newspaper, the suspects who have been charged in connection with the fires include teen-agers, copycats,  firefighters, and even black and white members of congregations who torched their own churches.

Notwithstanding the newspaper’s findings, for many African Americans the fires were a painful reminder of the firebombings of black churches that marked the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The phenomenon intensified national debate over racism in American society, causing many to wonder whether much had changed at all since the Jim Crow era.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights appeared to agree, in a study issued in October, which found that while the fires were set for many reasons   some, but not all, out of racial hatred the arsons were indicative of the racism that is still entrenched in many communities.

The commission’s conclusions were drawn from a series of public forums it held in seven Southern states, where it found that racial animosity and segregation were still dominant features of life. “It was like turning over a rock and seeing what’s underneath,” said commission chairwoman Mary Frances Berry. “It simply turned out that those fires were an indicator of problems in the community.”

The commission pointed out that racial animosity was so prevalent in Mississippi that black residents did not turn out for a forum held at a predominantly white college.

“I think the fires were simply a message, even though some were not race-related,” said Melvin Jenkins, director of the commission’s central region. “It was a message that we need to discuss race honestly, particularly in those Southern states.”

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]