Church Burnings Ignite Unity

Feds and local parishioners step up efforts to stem arsons

Efforts to prevent - and solve - the worst rash of black church bombings since the civil-rights era are suddenly picking up as the arson issue becomes a major US political and racial concern.

Across the South, pastors and parishioners are keeping 24-hour watches to protect churches. Federal authorities are expanding their probe into the burnings that have occurred so far, and funds are being set up to help rebuild charred sanctuaries.

The activity underscores the depth of many Americans' concerns about the racial animosity revealed by the burnings. Over the last 18 months, as many as 32 black churches in nine Southern states have gone up in flames - four over the past 10 days.

"It doesn't seem to be related to a specific church that's been a center for black activism, whereas in the civil-rights era, any church where voter registration meetings were held would be a likely target," says James Cobb, a professor of history at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville."

The topic has been at the top of President Clinton's agenda. He is scheduled to travel to Greeleyville, S.C., where Mount Zion AME Church burned last year.

Other administration officials, who met with ministers over the past few days, announced several steps to fight back, including establishing a toll-free number for people who have information on burnings; support of legislation that would make it easier to prosecute arson cases; and instructing federal agents to inform churches of steps to protect themselves.

So far, federal authorities have made about a dozen arrests in a handful of church bombings, which have occurred in Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Many fires have happened late at night in rural areas. Police arrested a 13-year-old white girl for allegedly setting the fire that destroyed a Charlotte, N.C., church June 7. Three males - two white and one Hispanic - are being questioned in fires set at two Texas churches June 9.

Federal officials say they have no evidence the burnings are linked to a national conspiracy, though they acknowledge many of the fires are racially motivated. Black ministers, however, see it differently.

"It's not accidental when you have three or four churches burn on the same night," such as has occurred in Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee, says the Rev. Willie James Freeman, pastor of Greater Missionary Baptist Church in Clarksville, Tenn.

Some clergy complain that federal agents have focused their investigations on interviews with the ministers and their congregations. The Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal, which deals with hate crimes, plans to file complaints with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms alleging misconduct by agents.

But others say the arsons are more likely separate incidents that are the result of a growing climate of racial intolerance. "We seem to be in a climate of fear and uncertainty and paranoia," Mr. Cobb says. "A lot of white people feel threatened by advances that blacks have made.... They feel they're losing ground and blacks are responsible and are convenient scapegoats."

"I think it probably started off as an isolated incident here or there," says Morris Dees, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. So far the perpetrators appear to represent a "mixed bag," Mr. Dees says. For example, one person arrested for an Alabama fire is a pyromaniac. In South Carolina two Klansmen have been charged. "We believe there's a conspiracy in at least three areas, though they may not be [engineered by all] white supremacy groups but individuals," he says.

One weapon Dees and others plan to use are civil lawsuits. Last Friday, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a suit against the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan - two of whose members are being held for the burnings of two black churches in South Carolina. A victory in such cases can help put hate groups out of business because they often must pay hefty damage awards. The suits can be filed as long as there are more than two individuals "who are entering into an agreement to commit an act of violence," says Randolph Scott-McLaughlin, vice president of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, which plans to file more lawsuits.

Local authorities also can play a big role in the investigations. "Arsons are hard to solve, and the ATF and FBI ... have been doing as good a job as they can, but local law enforcement is really the solution for solving these problems," Dees says. "They will get out and solve these crimes quicker than anyone because they're the first on the scene and they know people in the community." Dees also advocates more involvement by state governments and white denominations. He has written letters to Southern governors suggesting that $100,000 awards be given to people who lead authorities to convictions. "Awards bring people forward and will loosen some tongues," he says. In addition, he has asked white denominations in the South to help rebuild burned black churches.

Mr. Freeman, whose church received little damage in a 1994 fire, says ministers of black churches will meet in three months to discuss how to deal with the burnings. The National Council of Churches plans to start a $2 million campaign to help rebuild the churches that have been burned. Meanwhile, Freeman is cautiously optimistic about Washington's response: "There's more pressure from the top now to make sure the investigation continues."

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