#WhoIsBurningBlackChurches: Is It Freedom Summer Again?

Black churches burning.

Anonymous threats to black female pastors.

All this in the few weeks since the shooting of nine members of Emanuel AME in Charleston. Forgive me for thinking that the summer of 2015 holds echoes of the summer of 1964.

The summer of 1964 was the focus of a drive to register voters, the Mississippi Summer Project, which was later called Freedom Summer, hosted by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It was designed to bring white students from the north to help register black voters in the south.

That summer in Mississippi, 20 churches were burned by the Klu Klux Klan. One in particular, Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Neshoba County, Mississippi, was burned by the Klan to lure Michael “Mickey” Schwarner back to where he had worked registering black voters. He, along with James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, came back to the church to visit, and the three were arrested on June 16th for speeding in nearby Philadelphia, Mississippi.

After paying a fine at 10 pm that evening, they were told to get out of the county. They were never seen alive again. Their bodies would be found later that summer in an earthen dam on the Old Jolly Farm outside of Philadelphia.

One day after the 51st anniversary of the murder of Schwarner, Chaney and Goodman, nine African Americans were shot down in cold blood in the sanctuary of Emmanuel AME church in Charleston on June 17, 2015.

Seven black churches have burned since that day, with conflicting reports on whether or not these churches burned because of arson, lightning or other causes. Meanwhile, several African American female pastors in South Carolina have had threatening letters sent to them, stating, “You and your children will die.”

When it comes to racism in America, and specifically acts of violence against black Christians and black churches, the past is not even the past—it is a very present danger. While academics might argue about the death of the black church, racists know the history of the black church in America is a threat to white supremacy.

The current efforts to take down the Confederate flag across America, battle police violence, and improve black lives are also under attack. clergy and their church communities are spearheading much of this work.

The practicalities of protecting black houses of worship, however, are very much of this world. Many may not remember that during the years of 1995-1998, 670 churches burned, according to the Community Relations Service, and in 1996, the Church Arson Prevention Act was signed by then-President Clinton.

In light of the shooting at Emanuel AME and the church burnings, the White House, FEMA and Homeland Security recently held a conference call to help clergy members protect their churches and acquaint them with various governmental resources that churches can use to be “at the ready” in case of active shooter attacks, acts of arson, and other types of events that pose threats to buildings of worship.

While this is important, it focuses on prevention—not cure or eradication of racism or religion-based hate crimes.

These actions are a start, but they do not get to the root causes of racism and violence against black churches. Good white supremacists—some of them confessional Christians—fail to understand that the racial history of America has them captive. Some may have even come to their racist beliefs through biblical interpretations of the supposed inferiority of people of African descent.

What needs to happen is a concerted effort by all churches, black and white alike, to confront the issue of racism in America with fervor.

Today the Bishops of the AME church at their meeting in New Orleans declared September 6, 2015 as a day to pray and preach about racism in America. It will be interesting to see if this call is heeded outside of black churches in America.

Whatever happens, the summer of 2015 is shaping up to be a long one, another chapter in the ongoing story of race and freedom in America.