Since a massacre on June 17 when a white man killed nine black worshippers at a church bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, the media has reported an explosion of arsons targeting black churches across the US south. However, our Observer says that this rash of fires is not out of the ordinary. In the past twenty years, black churches have been going up in flames monthly, sometimes weekly—it’s just that no one was paying attention.

On the night of June 30, Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina was burned to the ground: the seventh black church in the American south to go up in smoke in the past few weeks.

Yet Mount Zion’s burning was especially tragic because it wasn’t the first time this congregation has walked through the fire. In 1995, Mt Zion AME was burned down by two former KKK members during an 18-month spree in which white supremacists torched more than 30 black churches. To take a stand against the rampant racism, then-President Bill Clinton attended the inauguration of Mount Zion AME’s new church in 1996.

President Clinton also gave a radio address, during which the Arkansas-native said:

"In our country, during the fifties and sixties, black churches were burned to intimidate civil rights workers. I have vivid and painful memories of black churches being burned in my own state when I was a child."

Fast-forward twenty years to June 2015 and President Obama made a similar comment in the wake of the deadly shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

“The fact that this took place in a black church obviously raises questions about a dark part of our history,” President Obama said on June 18.

But here’s the thing: burnings of black churches are not relegated to the past nor the immediate present. They’ve been occurring constantly for years.

As the former pastor of Mount Zion AME Church, Terrance Mackey said:

“The told story about church burnings is that churches were burning. The untold story is that they never stopped burning.”

Firefighters on the scene of the Mount Zion AME Church fire during the night of June 30, 2015. (Photo: Elijah James Curtis)
 
Daylight showed the full extent of damage to the Mount Zion AME Church, the seventh black church to be burned in the past few weeks. (Photo: Elijah James Curtis)

 

“I fell to the ground and said, ‘Lord, what is going on?”

Reverend Donaldson is a pastor from Tennessee. He was a founding member of the National Coalition for Burned Churches and Community Empowerment, an interfaith support group for congregations who lost their churches to arson. In 2009, the Coalition had to end 12 years of service due to lack of funding. Reverend Donaldson first become involved when his own church, Salem Baptist Church located in a tiny rural community near Humboldt, Tennessee, was burned to the ground in 1995.

It was on a Saturday evening—December 30, 1995— that someone decided to burn our church to the ground. I was at home with my wife that night. I came into the den and she was on the telephone. When I saw the look on her face, I thought one of her parents had died. Then, she told me that the church was on fire.

I got in the car and drove the 40 miles to the church. There were emergency teams everywhere. I parked as close as I could and started running up the road. When I got to the front of the church building, it was gone. I fell to the ground and said, “Lord, what is going on?”

It was my faith that gave me the strength to get up and think about the future. The fire was still raging, and I was going up to church members and asking them what colour they wanted the new church to be. They thought I was crazy, but a year later—albeit after a lot of hardship and hurt, we were back in a new church, bigger and more beautiful.

“Many congregations are in shock”

In 1996, several pastors of burned churches met in Washington, DC. I started speaking with Reverend Terrance Mackey [Editor’s note: Mackey was the then-pastor of the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville.] Together, we decided to help others who were going through what we had gone through.
After the fire, there was a lot of doubt in my congregation—people lost hope. We didn’t have insurance to rebuild. But we roughed through the situation on our own and we wanted to share what we had learned with others.

We established the National Coalition for Burned Churches and Community Empowerment in 1997. We travelled many hours and miles to give the pastors and congregations of burned churches help and support. Most of them didn’t know what to do. I don’t remember experiencing anger—people were just shocked and hurt.

Students help to rebuild a burned church as part of a programme run by the National Coalition for Burned Churches and Community Empowerment (photo from the NCBC website).

“It really hurt to know that people will suffer through this alone”

In 1995 and 1996, there was a media frenzy about church burnings. In the years that followed, it was still happening, but the media stopped covering it. Everyone acted like it was over.

Yet, in a ten year time period, between 1995 and 2005, we documented 2,000 church burnings across America. And that’s just the ones we knew about. Others never made the news because they happen in tiny rural communities. Other arsons were treated as accidental.

In 1996, President Clinton made a declaration that all church fires had to be reported at a federal level [Editor’s note: Clinton set up a task force chaired by then-Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Deval Patrick, and then-Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement, James Johnson]. However, the next administration didn’t maintain the mandate. President Bush never appointed people to look into it. So, federal interest dried up in those years, too.

In 2009, we dissolved because of lack of funding. We were covering all of our expenses out-of-pocket and, honestly, I just ran out of money. It really hurt to know that people will suffer through this alone because we can’t help them anymore.

“Sometimes, I wonder how hard the authorities were trying”

President Clinton’s bill may have passed, but it did not eliminate the fact that people were still being evil. You can’t legislate to remove a hateful mind. However, when things of this nature happen, people should be prosecuted to set an example. But, often, that doesn’t happen.

No one was ever arrested for the arson of our church. Evidence was consumed in the fire, of course. But, sometimes, I wonder how hard the authorities were trying. We just don’t know. [Editor's note: In his 1996 speech, President Clinton claimed 200 federal agents had been assigned to assist local and state law enforcement in solving these arson cases.]

We had no indication something like this would happen to us before it did. The racism here is subtle—you don’t see open hatred. It’s not like in the Carolinas, where some people openly show off being members of the KKK.

When my wife and I heard about the fire at the Mount Zion AME church yesterday, the first thing she said was that maybe it could happen to us again.

We pray that it does not.

“Even though we can’t stop it, let’s not act like it doesn’t exist”

Church burnings are becoming a hot item again. On one hand, it hurts because interest should have been there all along. But I guess I’m glad in some ways. Even though we can’t stop it, let’s not act like it doesn’t exist.

Authorities have already determined that arson caused two of the recent church fires—at God’s Power of Christ Church in Macon, Georgia and Briar Creek Road Baptist Church in Charlotte.

According to multiple news reports, police said that fires were set in multiple places at a third church, College Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The other four recent cases are not so clear. Investigators say they think lightning may have caused the fire at Mount Zion AME and at Fruitland Presbyterian Church, in Gibson County, Tennessee. A tree falling on electric lines may have caused the fire at Greater Miracle Apostolic Holiness Church in Tallahassee, Florida, according to investigators. For the time being, the cause of the Glover Grove Baptist Church fire in Aiken County has been classified as “undetermined.”

Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the Post and Courier newspaper (based in Charleston, South Carolina) that he doesn’t know if the fires were hate-motivated, but the fact that they occurred following the shootings at Emanuel AME and widespread calls for removal of the Confederate flag is an “intriguing” coincidence.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Brenna Daldorph (@brennad87)