Thursday, July 2, 2015

Where there's smoke -- July 2, 2015 column

Nearly two decades ago, news that more than 30 suspicious fires had damaged or destroyed black churches in 18 months in the Southeast prompted President Bill Clinton, Republicans and Democrats to put aside their differences and work together.

Clinton brought Southern governors to the White House and also set up a national task force to investigate the fires.

The House and Senate passed – unanimously, no less -- and Clinton signed, on July 3, 1996, the Church Arson Prevention Act. The law made it easier for federal officials to prosecute those who torch churches, lengthened prison sentences and provided loan guarantees for church rebuilding.

“Keep in mind, so far there’s no evidence of a national conspiracy,” Clinton said a week later. But, “we cannot…let significant numbers of the American people turn into cowards acting in the dark of night on racial, ethnic or religious bigotry.”

The horrific bombings and burnings of churches and homes during the 1960s still haunts America, and the idea that low-life scum again would set fire to houses of worship disgusted and united the political left and right.  

The good news, investigations by the task force as well as news organizations found, was that there was no conspiracy to set fire to black churches. Reports of an epidemic of racist arsons were overblown. Juveniles set 42 percent of the church fires, the task force reported in 1997. 

Racists had set some fires in black churches, but the incidence was less than breathless news reports had made it seem. Authorities keep better records now, and we know the number of church arsons has dropped over the years. Most church arsons are vandalism, revenge or to cover up other crimes and are not racially motivated -- but even one racist burning of a church is too many.

Since a white supremacist shot and killed nine black worshippers June 17 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., a string of nighttime fires at black churches in the South has awakened old fears. Three fires likely were arson, authorities have said, the rest probably caused by electrical wires or lightning.

None of the fires has been designated a hate crime. Investigations are continuing.

The fire Tuesday night that consumed Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, S.C., was eerily reminiscent of a blaze 20 years ago that leveled the historic church. That fire was set by two former Ku Klux Klan members.

The church was rebuilt, and at the dedication in 1996, Clinton said, “We are not slipping back to those dark days.” 

When Mount Zion burned again just days after the Charleston massacre, the news resonated deeply. Had we slipped back into those dark days? A white pastor in Nashville tweeted, “Hey racists, come burn our church too. We stand for Jesus too. We oppose racism too.”

This time, though, authorities said the fire at Mount Zion did not appear to be arson and may have been caused by lightning.

As investigators from the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other law enforcement agencies comb through the ruins, we all hope no fires are arson. But where there is arson, we want speedy justice.

In 2006, nine church burnings in rural Alabama raised fears of racism and calls for President George W. Bush to make stopping church fires a priority.

It turned out that three white college students from a Birmingham suburb set five fires as a prank on a deer hunting trip and then set four others four days later to divert law enforcement. No racial motive was found. Five of the churches were predominately black and four were white. One man was released from prison in 2012; the two others were released this year.

Where there’s smoke, sometimes there are youthful misdeeds or lightning -- and not hatred.

In any case, the remarkable coming together of people of good will after the killings in Charleston carries great promise. We must not allow this moment of hope to be lost in flame.

Clinton’s words in 1996 still ring true: “Our job is not done.”

©2015 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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