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Why Do Black Churches Keep Burning?

A series of fires at predominantly black churches since the horrific shooting in Charleston, South Carolina—including two blazes in the same state—have raised the specter of copycat racial violence.

by Allie Conti
Jul 1 2015, 10:00pm

A Southern church burning in 2011. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

When nine people were shot at an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, a wound many Americans might prefer to believe has healed since the Jim Crow era of poll taxes and lynchings was ripped open again.

The shooting set off a national conversation about the Confederate flag—one that's still playing out as lawmakers and activists tussle over the symbol's meaning. Last week, retail behemoths Walmart, Amazon, eBay, and Sears all stopped selling the flag, and just hours ago, Birmingham, Alabama, voted to take down a confederate memorial from a local park. Last Monday, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called on lawmakers to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol, and Alabama's governor unilaterally made the decision to take the flag down as well.

But could the horrific shooting also be inspiring copycat acts of racial violence? At least six predominantly black churches across the country have burned in the days since the Charleston bloodshed, though officials are only attributing some of them to acts of arson—and have yet to label any a hate crime.

White supremacists have a long and storied history of violence against African-American places of worship, and the terror tactic has continued in the last couple decades. Often, attacks on black churches have closely followed civil rights victories, like the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954. Hours after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, three men lit up a Massachusetts church in protest.

So when College Hill Seventh Day Adventist church caught fire in Knoxville, Tennessee just a few days after the Charleston shooting, it was tempting to attribute the blaze to racial animus rearing its ugly head. Immediately, however, authorities tried to quell such fears by saying there was no evidence of a hate crime.

It's become harder and harder to believe there's no racial element at play given the remarkably similar church blazes that followed. Two days after the Knoxville fire, another one broke out in Macon, Georgia. Again, the FBI said that just because they were looking into it didn't mean there was any evidence of a hate crime—at least not yet.

A day later, two more fires erupted in North Carolina and Tennessee, though the latter is a predominantly white church that was probably set on fire by lightning. On Friday, Glover Grove Baptist Church burned in South Carolina, and another church in Tallahassee, Florida, went ablaze. On Saturday, a church caught fire in Elyria, Ohio, though initial reports from local authorities suggest it was not intentional.

Finally, on Tuesday night, the same Greenville, South Carolina church that was torched by Ku Klux Klan members 20 years ago burst into flames. It also happens to belong to the same denomination—African Methodist Episcopal (AME)—as the Charleston church allegedly shot up by 21-year-old Dylann Roof. But so far, the feds have found no indication that the Mount Zion AME fire was the result of arson, according to the Associated Press.

Why are officials being so careful to avoid calling the handful of alleged arsons the FBI is investigating hate crimes? To the untrained eye, it might seem like there's some kind of conspiracy—or maybe just willful ignorance—afoot, but experts on racial violence aren't so sure.

"The kind of things [law enforcement] would expect to find are slogans or slurs—perhaps symbols—and they apparently haven't found anything like that," says Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). "It's not as if they're being stupid or ignoring evidence."

He explained that church fires are really common, citing a National Fire Protection Association report that there were 1,780 per year on average between 2007 and 2011. A federal Department of Justice (DOJ) task force found that between January 1995 and September 1998, there were 670 reported church fires in the country—and only 24 were motivated by hate.

As for the rest? Inclement weather can probably explain some of them, and while the feds continue to look for telltale signs of racial terrorism, we can't rule out old-school #teen mischief.

"Houses of worship tend to be in rural and remote and remote places," Potok said, referencing the sheer volume of church fires. "Drunk teenagers drink two cases of beer and light the place on fire. That sort of thing."

"The likelihood of this being a conspiracy is very unlikely," he added. "There's a lot of social media buzz about this, but social media is not an investigation."

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