Facts Justify Concern for Burnings

This column attempts to remove the smoke and take a clear-eyed look at the facts surrounding the rash of suspicious fires in Alabama at churches with nonwhite parishioners. Since December 1995, four such fires occurred in neighboring Hale and Green Counties. In Green, County the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Boligee burned on December 22, 1995. Less than a month later, the Little Mt. Zion Baptist Church, and the Mt. Zoar Baptist Church burned on the same night, January 11, 1996. In neighboring Hale County, the Rising Star Baptist Church in Greensboro burned on June 3, 1996.

Alabama’s Fire Marshall, John S. Robison, reports 38 known arsons and suspicious fires involving churches since January 1990. Of these 38 fires, 20 occurred at black churches and 18 at white churches. Arrests have been made in 20 of the 38 cases. Of the 20 cases where arrests have been made, 8 involved black churches and 12 involved white churches.

Who are these church-burners? Robison reports 32 suspects arrested in the 20 cases … “4 blacks and 7 whites in the 8 fires at black churches and 5 blacks and 16 whites in the fires at the 12 white churches.” The report lists the known motives in the 20 cases as follows: “10 attempts to conceal the crime of burglary and theft, 4 acts of vandalism, 2 firefighters wanting to fight fires, 2 involving problems within the church, 1 juvenile fascinated with fire, and 1 suspected drunk[ness].”

How the general public views these fires depends upon who they listen to and believe. Blacks leaders are calling theses fires racist acts. At a recent meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus, Deval Patrick, Assistant U.S. Attorney General for Civil Rights, told members: “Racial hostility is driving many of these fires.”

While civil rights groups and black leaders blame these fires on racist groups, some white political leaders say there is no evidence of racism. They say investigators are unable to link any of these fires to known racist groups.

Others see race as a factor. In an article written for the April issue of Emerge magazine, “Hate Flares Again,” Betsy Peoples chronicles a persuasive list of evidence linking racists to some of these fires. One of the fires she characterizes is the January 8, 1996 fire at the interracial, non-denominational Inner City Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. In that fire, racial graffiti spray painted on the back door and not destroyed by the flames read: “Die, nigger, die,” and “Nigger lovers.”

Other evidence suggesting that race may have played a role came days later in the mail. Among hundreds of letters to the church, one contained a 3-by-5-inch card with the corners burned. According Ms. Peoples’ article, the card contained racial slurs and said that the “…church’s donations would be better spent on the families of Los Angles murder victims Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.” The FBI confirms existence of the note but refuses to discuss the details.

Alabama’s governor says the facts do not support charges of racism in cases of arson at black churches. Gov. Fob James called a news conference on the June 18, 1996 to make his position known. Then he announced that he would not attend the meeting of southern governors and attorney generals convened in Washington by President Clinton to discuss the fires. He said he would not go because the meeting was “mostly politicians getting together to make statements to the media.”

State Representative Alvin Holmes disagrees with Gov. James. The Montgomery Advertiser reports Rep. Holmes as calling the governor’s news conference “rhetoric” similar to that used by white politicians in the 1960s about church bombings. Mr. Holmes said “when white leaders refuse to speak out it makes the people doing this [arsonists] feel their actions are justified.”

At the end of the day when the smoke has cleared, these facts remain. Fact: The state fire marshal has ruled 14 of the 18 unsolved suspicious church fires, arson. Fact: The frequency of suspicious fires occurring at black churches is twice the number occurring at white churches. These church fires are worrisome for most Alabamians. Many of whom properly think …based upon the states history… Governor James’ continuing efforts at distancing his administration from the concerns of nonwhite Alabamians are misguided.

In these church burning cases, politics as usual on the part of the governor sends the wrong message to both, the arsonist and those charged with investigating these terrorist acts. It may well provide the arsonist with some twisted sense of justification, while offering no incentive for state investigators to prove the governor’s position wrong.

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Originally Published: 3 July 1996, Montgomery Advertiser
© Copyright – 1996 – Major W. Cox and Montgomery Advertiser.

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