Black Churches are Burning: Is It the 1990s All Over Again?

For many Americans, news reporting that at least seven predominantly black churches have been destroyed by fire since the horrific murders at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last month feels like “déjà vu all over again.”

We remember all too well the daily images of burning churches on the nightly news in the late 1990s. I was involved in extensive research on the phenomenon at the time, so in many ways I feel as if I’m watching reruns of old news reels.

Still, can this be the beginning of another wave of racist violence targeting the spiritual homes of African-American Christians?

On June 30, a seventh church fire, at 100-year-old Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, S.C., was a devastating repeat of history. In 1995, two members of the Ku Klux Klan burnt Mt. Zion to the ground almost exactly 20 years ago to the day of last month’s blaze.

Once again Mt. Zion has been reduced to ashes, but the FBI says the likely cause of last month’s fire there was a lightning strike, not hatred. Intuitively, the smoke smells like a hate crime, a violent act meant to intimidate the African-American population. But is it?

At the outset, the obvious needs to be stated: not all church fires are crimes motivated by racial hatred. Many are accidental, whether faulty wiring or a lightning strike. It takes a lot to move a fire from “suspicious origins” to “intentional,” and therefore arson.

It is even harder to prove that an arson is a hate crime.

There is a lot at stake here: hate crimes are prosecuted as civil rights violations and carry heavier penalties than arsons. Under the Church Arson Prevention Act, passed in 1996, penalties for both were increased when a house of worship is the target. Sometimes racist language is spray-painted on a church, or the perpetrators themselves reveal their motives. But often acts of arson have been depicted in court as just drunken mischief, allowing defendants to avoid the heavier sentences.

So, how does this latest wave of church burnings compare to the phenomenon of the 1990s? There are some striking, and familiar, similarities as well as some significant differences.

An obvious difference is that of scale. The Church Arson Prevention Act established the Church Arson Task Force which began documenting the burning of houses of worship from 1995. In their first report in 1997 they reported that 429 worship sites had been destroyed by arson or bombing in two and a half years. One third were predominantly African American churches in the south. They were able to get civil rights convictions for racial hate crimes in 60 percent of the cases in five Southern states and Nevada.

In subsequent years, the numbers fell: there were 209 church arsons in 1997 and 166 the following year, according to their annual reports. The last report was issued in 2001. Altogether there were almost 900 reported cases of church arson in the late 1990s—a huge number compared to what we’ve seen in the last two weeks.

A second difference is that of public response. In 1995-96, there was a unique alliance of actors creating “perfect storm” conditions. Black churches had long been the targets of racial hatred. But it was when Green Bay Packers player, Reggie White, spoke in an interview during the Super Bowl of 1996 about the arson and bombing of a church he pastored in Knoxville, Tenn., that the issue burst into mainstream media.

Within weeks, the White House, news media, and National Council of Christian Churches began working together to document and formulate responses to this wave of attacks on Black churches. USA Today and the New York Times provided daily coverage, as did major television network news programs. They deployed many reporters on the story, who were in communication with the Justice Department and ATF officials, who were themselves scrambling to keep up with events.

President Clinton, facing re-election, met directly with pastors of burned churches and with the National Council of Churches. He then moved quickly to pass the Church Arson Prevention Act, which established the Church Arson Prevention Task Force, an unprecedented collaborative effort between the Civil Rights Division of Department of Justice, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, FEMA, the FBI, and others.

The Church Arson Prevention Act also made the penalties for church arsons more severe, designated the cancellation of church insurance policies by insurance companies to be a crime, designated loan funds for rebuilding, and developed strategies for arson prevention and community building.

Meanwhile, the NCC was raising unprecedented amounts of funding from organizations, celebrities, and individual congregations. The burning of black churches was an outrage that transcended theological differences. Millions of dollars were directed to herculean rebuilding efforts, channeling hundreds of volunteers to church sites for one-to-two-week stints.

Mt. Zion A.M.E. was among the churches rebuilt by those efforts.

The wave of church burnings had hit a national nerve. The public conversation around racism had been simmering in the early 1990s, but had spiked in intensity after the nation saw video of the beating of Rodney King in 1991 and the LA riots triggered by the acquittal of the officers who’d beaten him, as well as the trial and aquittal of O.J. Simpson in 1995. These racially divisive events painfully exposed the different perspectives of African American and white communities writ large.

The attacks on black churches, therefore, provided a respite of cohesion—an issue that seemingly most Americans could agree was wrong and want to do something about. I interviewed many of the white volunteers who helped rebuild black churches and who felt that, by helping to restore a church destroyed by hate, they were playing a part in dismantling racism and restoring justice.

The current spate of church burnings in the wake of the Charleston massacre has drawn much earlier public attention to what might be a trend. No doubt social media—see the #BlackLivesMatter and #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches on Twitter and Facebook—has accelerated public awareness.

So far there no concerted response by the federal government, such as re-instituting the Task Force from the 1990s, or a assembling a central faith-based organization of volunteers to rebuild the churches. But both, or similar efforts, still could happen.

This ripple-that-might-be-a-wave of church burnings comes at a time when nerves once again are raw: this time, the outrageous murder of innocent church folk in the familiar activity of gathering for a bible study. Once again, this racist act shocked and offended all Americans, of whatever political, religious or ethnic stripe. Presidential leadership has again helped frame the public’s response: in his eloquent eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, President Obama called us back to being the United States.

Hate crimes against black churches (and other religious groups as well) continue to occur. Many of the burned churches in the 1990s were surprised by all the media attention and that white Americans were just becoming aware of what had been part of the African American experience for generations. (A number of the sites, in fact, had been victims of arson in the past.)

Perhaps going forward after Charleston, we no longer will be able to plead ignorance of the unacceptable targeting of faith communities by those filled with racial hatred. There are certainly preventative measures that churches can take. But the deeper work of prevention is the responsibility of all of us.