May 21, 1996

Burnings of Black Churches to Be Investigated by Congress

ATLANTA -- On the eve of a congressional hearing into a rash of church burnings across the South, federal officials are continuing to investigate whether there are any links between the fires at dozens of black churches over the last six years.

Although Deval L. Patrick, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, characterizes the fires as "an epidemic of terror," the Justice Department has not disclosed any evidence of a region-wide conspiracy fomented by hate groups.

Whether or not the fires are linked, civil-rights leaders have started to blame what Rev. Jesse Jackson calls "a cultural conspiracy." While there may be no single organization plotting the torchings, these leaders say, the fires reflect heightened racial tensions in the South that have been exacerbated by the assault on affirmative action and the populist oratory of Republican politicians like Pat Buchanan.

As the inquiry moves from the sleepy towns of the Bible Belt to the partisan environment of election-year Washington, some black leaders are criticizing the Clinton administration for not investigating the fires with enough intensity. Others, while pleased that Congress is about to shine a spotlight on the issue, are concerned that Republicans will use the hearings to mount political attacks on the White House.

"On the one hand, I think there are some folks in Washington that are genuinely concerned about the bombings of these churches," said the Rev. Mac Charles Jones, the associate general secretary for racial justice of the National Council of Churches. "But there are others who are concerned about the presidential campaign. I think there are some folks who want to be in line with an administration-bashing thing."

Those suspicions have been aroused by the inclusion of representatives of two predominantly white and conservative religious groups -- the Christian Coalition and the Southern Baptist Convention -- on the Judiciary Committee's witness list for Tuesday's hearing. Although the committee, which is led by Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, invited several black religious leaders to testify, it did not ask for public testimony from the three liberal groups that have been active in publicizing the fires -- the National Council of Churches, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Center for Democratic Renewal.

Hyde said in an interview on Monday that the hearing would not be politicized.

"I have no intention of that and I don't know of anybody that does," he said. "Right now, we have no criticism to make of the administration or the law-enforcement agencies, and if any are made, it better be fair or I will comment on it."

Since late 1989, dozens of black churches have burned in suspicious fires in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Different civil-rights monitoring groups have compiled varying statistics on the number of fires. The Center for Democratic Renewal, an Atlanta-based group, has recorded 57 cases of arson or serious vandalism at black churches since Jan. 5, 1990, with 36 of them in 1995 and 1996. Klanwatch, the investigative arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center based in Montgomery, Ala., has counted 32 church fires since Dec. 6, 1989, with 23 of them in 1995 and 1996.

The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms currently is investigating 25 church arsons that have taken place since Jan. 1, 1995, said John A. O'Brien, a spokesman. Several of the arsons have been solved through successful state and federal prosecutions, including some in which defendants were convicted of civil-rights violations. All of the defendants have been white men.

In South Carolina, two men with connections to the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan have been charged with setting fire in June 1995 to the Macedonia Baptist Church in Bloomville and the Mt. Zion A.M.E. Church in Greeleyville.

The fires have captured the attention of civil-rights groups not only because of their number, but also because of the unique role played by black churches in the South and in civil-rights history. The flames have rekindled memories of 1963, when Klansmen planted a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four black girls.

"They're not burning down black barbecue joints, they're not burning down black pool halls," said Randolph Scott-McLaughlin, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based civil liberties group. "They're burning down black churches. It's like they're burning a cross in my front yard. They're burning symbols of resistance and community and hope and refuge."

Scott-McLaughlin said he is considering filing lawsuits against hate groups that he believes are connected to several of the fires.

Jackson and other black leaders said they see connections between the church burnings and other signs of rising racial tensions, whether the willingness of white politicians to attack affirmative-action programs or this year's killings of a black couple by white soldiers near Ft. Bragg, N.C.

"The clouds are seeded with scapegoat politics," Jackson said after visiting the remains of a burned church in Effingham, S.C.

Jackson also has led the criticism of the Federal investigation. "There's a clear pattern and practice now, and there's not the vigorous pursuit of these arsonist terrorists that we deserve," he said.

But Patrick said more than 200 agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were committed to the church-burning cases. He urged patience.

"Any arson is tough because the evidence burns, so we are literally sifting through ash in many of these," he said. "But we've made pretty good progress, and we're determined to stay with this until we have all of them solved."

The administration's diligence clearly will be one subject of Tuesday's hearing, which Hyde said was requested by both Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, and by Rep. Charles T. Canady, a Florida Republican. Patrick is scheduled to testify along with the FBI and the alcohol and firearms bureau.

Hyde said he has few preconceptions. "You know, burning churches can be a statement by people who are angry at God, not necessarily trying to send a message to the parishioners or the pastor," he said. "There are several reasons why these things occur, and then there's the question of conspiracy. We intend to listen tomorrow and develop some information about whether oversight is necessary."

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