Black Leaders See Racial Conspiracy in Church Arsons

THE Rev. David Upton remembers Jan. 8 with dismay. Early that snowy morning someone set fire to the Inner City Church in Knoxville, Tenn., where he is pastor to a mostly black congregation. The sanctuary burned to the ground; racist graffiti was spray-painted on the building.

Mr. Upton's church is one of 10 black and interracial churches in the South that have been torched since January and one of 45 that have been burned or vandalized since 1990, according to a report released this week by the Center for Democratic Renewal, an Atlanta-based group that monitors hate crimes. Black leaders suspect the arsons are tied to hate groups.

Though federal agencies are giving high priority to investigating the fires, officials say they have not found a conspiracy linking them. Agents at the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms do suspect some of the burnings were racially motivated. Of the 17 arsons that have occurred in the past 14 months, arrests have been made in three cases; two have involved members of the Ku Klux Klan.

For black ministers and community leaders, the conspiracy link is obvious. "You're talking about a well-organized white-supremacist movement," says the Rev. Mac Charles Jones, chairman of the Social Justice Commission at the National Baptist Convention of America.

MR. JONES and representatives from black groups, including the Center for Democratic Renewal, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the NAACP, are asking for a more aggressive federal investigation.

According to the center's report, violent acts against black churches have escalated from one or two a year in 1990-93 to 15 in '94 and 13 in '95. The group says only 12 cases have been solved, and those arrested or prosecuted have been white males, some who belonged to groups such as the Aryan Faction and the Ku Klux Klan.

Black leaders believe the remaining unsolved crimes were also racially motivated. "How many white churches have been burned?" asks Joseph Lowery, the SCLC president.

Some, though, say the firebombings are a historical phenomenon. "There's no conspiracy there," says Joel Williamson, Lineberger, humanities professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "It's a common restlessness giving way to a rise in racial violence. America is very uneasy right now. The cold war has removed the focus we had with a common enemy, and the economy is going through a sea change that makes all of us feel anxious. It happened during the great depression of the 1890s with lynchings, and it's happening now."

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