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Violent US History Looms Large as Feds Investigate String of Black Church Fires

White supremacist groups and black history experts agree that the burning of black churches could be one minor part of violent reaction to civil rights progress.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Federal investigators are looking into three fires at three separate black churches across the South this week, a string of suspicious incidents that some on both the left and right say is a pattern of violent reaction to social change that could continue in the coming years.

The FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are investigating fires at College Hill Seventh Day Adventist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee; Briar Creek Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; and God's Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. Two other black churches also experienced fires in recent days, though the causes have not yet been determined.


"When I look at this I see, I think of an intention to try to destroy this entire church," Pastor Cleveland Hobdy III, told Knoxville television station WATE. "It makes it sad. It's sad either way that someone would put their mind to try to damage a church that's trying to help people."

"We are still talking about this same issue and this is 2015," Briar Creek Baptist Church Pastor Mannix Kinsey told the Charlotte Oberver. "We all have to consider what else do we need to do to actually be able to work together."

Representatives for those churches did not immediately return calls for comment from VICE News.

Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, told VICE News that those who were initially stunned by the calls to remove the Confederate flag in the wake of the Charleston church shooting may now be moving onto anger, and seeking to destroy symbols of black independence or power as means of retribution.

"In American history, to almost every significant social advance, there has been a backlash — often accompanied by a hell of a lot of violence," Potok said.

'In American history, to almost every significant social advance, there has been a backlash — often accompanied by a hell of a lot of violence.'

Gerald Horne, the Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, told VICE News that black churches have historically been seen as sanctuaries for black people to escape "the lash of the slave master or noose of lyncher."


"This connection between black militancy and black churches has attracted the unwelcome attention of the white supremacists to this very day," Horne said.

Eric McDaniel, a professor of politics at the University of Texas at Austin, said churches serve as a "key symbol" of black independence and black pride, so it makes sense that racists and bigots would want to attack them.

"Actually seeing that happen didn't surprise me," he said. "The fact that it hasn't happened more surprises me, actually,"

McDaniel was particularly surprised there wasn't more outrage following Obama's soaring eulogy for Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, the state senator killed in the Charleston shooting, given that Obama addressed the country's racial issues forcefully in his remarks.

Related: Historic Charleston Church Holds Emotional Sunday Service Days After Deadly Shooting

"Like lynching, [fires] are an ongoing expression of hate that uptick around certain events," McDaniel said, using competitive elections as an example of when both acts might be carried out. "So in terms of actual racial terrorism, the threat is constantly there, with little acts here and there, and then basically it'll flare it up."

On the other side, white supremacist organizations are facing increased criticism — with some of it coming from within — following the attack in Charleston.

William Johnson, a leader of the so-called "white nationalist" American Freedom Party, told VICE News that there has been "an escalation of discord on all sides," and that white nationalist movements must take responsibility for the Charleston shooting because they did not convince Dylann Roof, the suspected gunman, that there were ways other than violence to express his views.


"If we'd been more skilled at involving people through the election process he may have found another outlet for that," Johnson said.

But Johnson also said that the fights over removing the Confederate flag are not going to bring any real solution to the racial issues plaguing the country.

"I think the only real solution is to create a separate ethnic state," he said. "This grand experiment called multiculturalism won't ever work, and has never worked."

Johnson said that the tension now being seen is a result of an "uneasy peace that has continued on for 50 years by the whites ceding everything, little by little, to other races."

Horne, the Houston professor, said it was likely that those offended by the removal of the Confederate flag were also incensed by other social progress seen both last week and in recent years, including the Supreme Court rulings on marriage equality and healthcare — both seen as liberal causes — and about a black man serving as president.

He said that those touting a "liberal spring" in the US may be "like a red flag to the bull of white supremacists," enraging them further.

Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute, a think tank devoted to "the heritage, identity, and future of European people," told VICE News that the timing of the Confederate flag controversy during Pride week was also notable.

Related: Confederate Flag Debate Heats Up as Major Retailers Drop Merchandise From Shelves


"I don't think it was planned this way, but there seems to be this meta-meaning where the Confederate flag was taken down and the rainbow flag raised all in the same week," Spencer said. "It symbolizes a major historical trend, which is an image of America that is disassociated from European history and culture, an image of America as this kind of global liberal platform for all people and cultures to come here and go shopping and vote and live their dreams or some hokey nonsense like that. That is basically what's happening. A culture is being erased and a new vision is replacing it."

Potok, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, said violent reactions from racists and the far-right weren't just against black people but other groups that have brought about changes in American laws and social demographics.

"We've seen a great deal of violence to other things, to heavy Catholic immigration in the 1920s, when the Klan was its peak and there were convent burnings and priest murders and those kinds of things," Potok said. "And similarly, with advances in gay rights and so on."

White Americans have traditionally had a pattern of reacting violently to social change and civil rights progress, Potok said, citing the resistance to reconstruction that allowed Jim Crow laws to come into existence, and the response of the Klan to the civil rights movement.

'We're looking at a long, hard road to becoming what will really be genuinely multicultural society in this country.'


"To speak in the largest sense, I think right now and in the last 10 years, our country has been going through a major backlash against huge social and demographic changes occurring, namely the loss of the white majority in the next thirty years or so," he said.

Potok and Johnson, the white nationalist, both predicted that in the next two decades — as the demographics of the country change — more violence could erupt.

"It is popular now to be anti-white, to be pro-homosexual, to criticize Christianity and all of the institutions of Western civilization. There will come a time when it'll be no longer popular to be that, but to fight back, as white people become more and more in the minority, there will be pushback, and much more unrest than we're seeing now," Johnson predicted.

He said that though he recognizes his message is unpopular now, he believes that will change once white people lose enough of their privilege. Spencer, of the National Policy Institute, agreed, saying that white Americans may change their minds about a diversifying America when they are in the minority, though he said it could come about from a peaceful separation into ethnic groups rather than violence.

"I don't see greater violence or anything like that, but what I think is going to happen is a lot of white people are going to start thinking this is not their country anymore," Spencer said. "I think the dominant trend in the United States and other places too is a disintegration of national unity, and… for the coming decades that's going to be a major challenge: What is our identity? What is the post-American identity for white people?"


Potok, meanwhile, had a slightly more optimistic vision for the future.

"Every time the country makes a significant advance like this there is a reaction, and unfortunately some people pay for that reaction with their lives," he said. "Hopefully we don't see anything on the order of an Oklahoma City, but we're looking at a long, hard road to becoming what will really be genuinely multicultural society in this country, not dominated by any group. There are lots of multicultural societies, but this is country where no group will hold the majority, and that will surely be a better thing, but we have a long road ahead of us."

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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