Flames and terror in the Deep South

Forty black churches have been burned down across the US in the past 18 months. At first, a white supremacist conspiracy seemed likely, but this week a 13-year-old girl has admitted to one arson attack, a young black man is the prime suspect in another, and neat theories no longer seem so convincing. By Tim Cornwell
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The Independent Online
Enid, Oklahoma, lies on the old cattle trail running north from Texas. A one-horse wheat and beef town of 50,000 people, it boasts a honkytonk Western supply store and a fancy ribs restaurant. One morning last month, the day's Enid News and Eagle ran off the presses with a front-page story of what local ministers had to say about a rash of fires at black churches across the South. And at about 4am, as the first papers hit Enid's doorsteps, fire burst over the roof of the First Missionary Baptist Church.

By breakfast the FBI were in Enid, beating the News and Eagle's reporters to the scene. By noon, arson specialists from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had arrived in force. It was on everyone's minds that "the epidemic of terror", as a top Justice Department official called it, had struck once again. Only days before, two churches in Texas and one in North Carolina had been torched. But by day's end in Enid, the 200-strong task force that President Bill Clinton had ordered to round up "cowards in the night" seemed a bad case of overkill. A tip-off led to a confession by 35-year-old Christopher Harper. A homeless graduate of Enid's residential school for mentally disturbed youths, he could neither read nor write. Though white, he hardly fitted the profile of a race-baiting good 'ole boy, and the last fire he set was his own mattress in jail.

"Apparently, he's fascinated by fire," said an Enid detective who talked to Mr Harper, his family and friends. "He told us that he wanted to be on TV. He'd seen the other fires on television. He broke a window and poured the gasoline in and set it on fire." The FBI, having concluded there was no racial motive, has dumped the case.

Among Enid's tiny black population of about 4,000, suspicion lingers. Associate Pastor Ivy Haynes wonders if Mr Harper acted alone, or was inspired by someone else. "I went to the site where the church stood and watched it burn, and then tears began to flow, and I watched firefighters put out the flames and the flames came back, and the tears came back," he says. "The thought crosses our mind that someone hates us for who we are."

Pastor Haynes's fears are shared by black people across the South, and the fires are likely to figure prominently in discussions at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, which opens tomorrow. Since January 1995 there have been about 40 suspicious fires at black churches in the South. But anyone looking to package all of these incidents together and blame them on a white supremacist conspiracy is having to reassess that theory in the light of investigations like the one in Enid.

This week, a 13-year-old white girl pleaded guilty to setting a fire at a black church in Charlotte, North Carolina in June. The incident touched off determined words at the White House, as President Bill Clinton embarked on turning the rash of church burnings across the South into a national shame. Fifty fire investigators were dispatched to comb the ashes, five from the FBI alone. They found a culprit who dressed in black, dyed her long straight hair the same colour, and seemed to crave attention. She was a little weird, a loner and a smoker, said her schoolmates, but she could have been anyone's teenaged daughter.

She once set light to a stack of paper napkins with a cigarette-lighter. Her parents, a well-to-do couple, live in an ample brick house in Charlotte, a state capital developed by Scottish immigrants as a regional financial centre. Racism had nothing to do with the fire, police concluded. They described the girl as troubled, with anti-Christian views, and let drop hints of teenagers toying with Satanism.

The national convulsion over the fires continued this week. On Wednesday, Mr Clinton signed into law a Bill, rapidly written and approved 422-0 in the House of Representatives and 98-0 in the Senate, making it a federal crime to deface, damage or destroy a church "on the basis of race, colour or ethnicity". It authorised $9m (pounds 5.77m) in loan guarantees to rebuild them. But the deeper federal agents rake the ashes, it appears, the less they find evidence of a racist conspiracy. In Portland, Oregon, a black gang member is the prime suspect in a fire that destroyed the church of a black congregation two weeks ago.

The fact remains that the torching of a black church is an act laden with symbolism, inevitably conjuring up images of the Old South and the Ku Klux Klan. The earliest recorded church burning happened in 1822 in South Carolina. President Clinton has ordered one of the largest criminal investigations on record into the source of the fires. Citing memories of churches burning in his Arkansas childhood, he said it was clear that "racial hostility" was a driving force. On a visit to the site of a fire in South Carolina, he spoke of lynchings and segregation and asked "every citizen in America to say we are not going back, we are not slipping back to those dark days".

The Republican chairman Haley Barbour immediately accused the President of playing "shameless, transparent politics". But his party has rapidly changed tack, and Republican Congressmen have since queued up to condemn the culprits as "cowardly" and "despicable". Ralph Reed, director of the thoroughly white and conservative Christian Coalition, has announced his organisation will aim to raise $1m for black church reconstruction. White evangelicals, he says, have too often been on the wrong side of the civil rights struggle.

That there has been white supremacist involvement in some of the fires is not doubted. There are about 300,000 churches, synagogues and mosques in America. According to the National Fire Protection Association, arson strikes about 600 a year, a figure that has remained fairly constant. But by early this year there was a growing suspicion that the fires in the South were not some statistical blip. On two successive nights in late June 1995, two churches in South Carolina within a few miles of each other burned. Within days, Timothy Welch, 23, and Christopher Cox, 22, were charged for both fires, as well as for the beating and stabbing of a black man.

Mr Welch was carrying a card identifying him as a member of the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Founded in 1985, the Christian Knights are one of several splintered Klan groups that still exist in the South. They are known for holding small but public rallies decked in the traditional robes and hoods. Both men, associates say, had attended meetings where black churches were denounced for teaching people how to apply for assistance payments. A flier announcing a Klan rally was pinned to the door of the Bloomville church a month before it burned. Six months later, arson investigators combing the ashes of the Inner City Church in Knoxville, Tennessee found the remains of 18 Molotov cocktails. The church had been daubed with "White is right" graffiti. Most of the arson cases that followed took place in Tennessee and South Carolina, and in the Deep South states of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, the scenes of the most brutal encounters of the civil rights years.

For all the angry reaction from Washington, it appears that, once again, in America many blacks see a racist conspiracy where the white establishment sees accident. A growing number of arson experts and local fire chiefs say they see no evidence of a grand scheme to burn black churches. Rather, they suggest, there are a few isolated racial incidents, and a lot of copycats and firebugs. Alabama's white chief fire marshal says the public is being "misinformed" because there has not been a dramatic rise in the number of church fires, a message echoed by officials in Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina. And in some states half of those that do burn are white, they claim.

But for the Rev Jesse Jackson and many other black leaders, these are quibbles. The Rev Jackson talks of a "cultural conspiracy", of a "kind of anti-black mania, a kind of white riot" that has spread across the country. The Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, the Mercedes plants in Alabama, symbolise the new South. Blacks, however, along with veterans of the civil rights movements, are haunted by the vivid reminders of the not-so-old South. Schools and workplaces in America have been integrated by law, but there is an old saying that 11 o'clock on Sunday, the traditional time for worship, is the most segregated hour in America. "Black people go to black churches and white people go to white churches," says Professor Eric Lincoln, one of the foremost experts on the American black church. "That's true yesterday, today, and will be tomorrow morning."

Across the US, white congregations are shrinking while black are growing. President Clinton knows well the unique place that the African-American church held in the downtrodden Southern communities and continues to occupy to this day, providing not just spiritual but communal and political leadership. Churches, it is said, were the one source of power in a community without power.

John Zippert is the son of European Jews who fled the Holocaust, a background that still rings in his accent. He is the editor of the Green County Democrat, a black-owned weekly newspaper in rural western Alabama with a circulation of just 2,000. "My wife is black, so we cause a lot of trouble round here," he says. Mr Zippert also works in a co-operative to help small black farmers hold on to their land, doing his best to ease what is still desperate rural poverty. "If you were really going to attack something in Greene County," he says, "you should have rolled your Molotov cocktail into the Democrat."

Greene County has three small towns in 640 square miles. Its population is 80 per cent black. In the woods outside the town of Boligee, a group of Christian church volunteers from as far away as Canada are rebuilding the baptist Church. Mount Zoar, a black church established in 1902, was one of two churches destroyed by fire in January. The month before, another black church was burned, and there was an attempt on a fourth. "Everything we owned had been burned to ashes," says the Rev Arthur Coleman. "The only thing I can come up with is that it is work of the devil. We didn't have no problem with anybody, everybody was getting along fine."

At a meeting called by the 40-strong congregation of Mount Zoar, several people broke down. The mystery is the absence of obvious motive. In neighbouring Sumper County, two black churches were badly vandalised by three white men who smashed up the pews and claimed later it was a drunken dare. But Mount Zoar was so remote, that by the time the fire was discovered the ashes were cold. Arson has not been confirmed. The perpetrators left nothing behind.

Greene County lies in what Zippert calls Alabama's Western black belt, a line of black-majority counties. It was the first place in Alabama where blacks took over the county government, in 1969. The Klan could not operate openly here; the county Sheriff is black. But beneath the surface, Mr Zippert says, there is still a huge polarisation. Most shops and businesses remain white-owned. Public schools are almost wholly black. "Something evil is going on in this country," he says. "It is a sort of a leaderless conspiracy. That people with white supremacist attitudes are saying, what we want to do is burn down a church." Zippert's own theory is that it may be part of some initiation rite for the Klan.

Spiver Gordon, head of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a Presbyterian pastor, believes that white people who doubt that race is playing a part are in a state of denial. "The people who've been arrested, every one of them has passed white churches and gone to black churches and burned them down," he says. "Even the little girl who went and burnt a church down, why go and burn a black church down? Even if it's copy cat, there's race involved. If they are copy-catting, thrill-seeking, why don't they burn a white church down?"