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Who is burning America’s Black churches and why?

By Earl Ofari HutchinsonNew America Media, Commentary
On July 13, 2015

Charlotte Fire fighters battle a blaze at Briar Creek Baptist Church. The predominantly Black church is one of several that have recently caught fire and adds to racial tensions.
Credit: Charlotte Fire Department

The count of Black churches in the South that have been torched is not the six that have been burned since the massacre of nine Blacks at Charleston’s Emmanuel AME Church, but 37. The church burnings occurred in a period of not two weeks but over 18 months.

That was only the tip of the church burning iceberg. In a six year period between 1991 and 1996, the ATF investigated more than 150 churches that had been torched in both the South and the North. Some of those burned were White churches. But it was the sheer number and ferocity of the arson attacks on Black churches that caught the nation’s attention and stirred alarm that Black churches were being systematically targeted.

The tormenting question, though, was by who and why then, and again, today? Black churches have been an inviting target for racially motivated attacks by the Klan, assorted White vigilantes and cranks during a hot button period from the early to mid-1960s. The reason then was simple: they were the gathering place, centerpiece, and rallying point for the mass meetings, marches and demonstrations by civil rights leaders. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the SCLC, CORE and the NAACP, knew that when all other public and private facilities were barred to them for use in most Southern cities and towns, there was always a local Black church that would open its pulpit and sanctuary to them. The price paid was steep. In less than one month in 1962, five Black churches were torched in rural Georgia. The next year the nation recoiled in shock at the dynamite bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and the murder of four Black girls.

But the resurgence of attacks on Black churches in the 1990s mystified many. The civil rights era of mass protests and demonstrations with Black churches at the center had long since passed. So who was doing the dirty work now and why? Then President Clinton was among those who wanted to know why and asked Congress for an extra $1.2 million to beef up the investigations. The money was approved. The ATF, FBI and federal prosecutors supplied a partial answer with the arrests and prosecutions of a motley assortment of suspects. They were almost always young, male, and White, and they had spouted racist sentiments, had loose ties with shadowy hate groups.

Or the perpetrators fit the textbook category of poorly educated teens or malcontents who tanked up on booze or drugs took out their warped anger or derangement on a handy and vulnerable target, namely the nearest local Black church. 

That same racially charged climate and the tensions it ignited repeats itself again today. The Charleston massacre was the most heinous and horrific atrocity, but it was also the latest in a train of race tearing events in the past year. The mass agitation over the police killings of and assaults on unarmed young Black males, and increasingly females. There’s been the relentless assault by ultra conservatives on voting rights protections, college affirmative action programs, and the open and subtle vicious racial harangue and hectoring of President Obama by some Tea Party extremists, and unreconstructed bigots. Much of that hate is well evident in the nonstop race baiting digs, slurs, and putdowns of Blacks on websites, chat rooms, and in social media.

Investigators have been quick to say that they have found no evidence of a conspiracy, let alone a racial motive, in the church burnings. And that it’s way too soon to even intimate that any of the church burnings were a hate crime. Almost certainly, there will be some arrests in the burnings. That again will provide at least a partial answer whether the burnings were done by crackpots and malcontents or organized racial hate mongers. No matter what investigators ultimately find about who is burning the churches and their motives for doing so, the horrifying fact is that Black churches a half century after the peak of the 1960s civil rights battles still remain the one Black institution that is America’s inviting target for attacks – whatever the reason.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is author of “From King to Obama: Witness to a Turbulent History” (Middle Passage Press). Follow him on Twitter at @earlhutchinson.

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