Something Terrible Is Happening In The South

Photo: Bruce Smith/AP Photo.
On Tuesday night, a fire broke out at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina. The destruction of a place of worship would be a tragic event in the best of times, but this isn't the best of times. In the less than two weeks since nine black men and women were murdered at a Bible study meeting in Charleston (avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof has confessed to the crime), there have been fires at at least six churches with mostly black congregations.

Were these fires, which have all struck churches in southern states (Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina) intentional? Or are they almost comically frightening coincidences? So far, federal investigators believe only three of them — but not the one in Greeleyville — were cases of arson.

America has a long history of arson at black churches, from the bombing that killed four little girls in 1963 to a string of hate crime attacks in the mid-'90s. Mount Zion was one of them; two KKK members burned it to the ground in 1995. Decades later, the threat of domestic terrorism is a high priority for the Department of Homeland Security. And, a report released last week found that despite our country's widely publicized fears, you're about twice as likely to die in a domestic terror plot than at the hand of an international terrorist.

"In addition to being places of worship, [these churches] were community gathering places, frequently places from which civil rights efforts were launched," Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, told us. It may be impossible to know the motives behind any arson attacks, he said, "but it’s something that certainly raises very serious questions and deserves very close examination. It has historically been a a way of creating fear and apprehension in the black community."

Despite the very real threats of violence that members of minority groups face, activists are still fighting for civil rights and respect. Last weekend, activist Bree Newsome took down the Confederate flag that flies at the South Carolina Capitol. Her civil disobedience, she said in a statement to Blue Nation Review, was an act of resistance against what the flag represents and the people who dismiss her concerns:
For far too long, white supremacy has dominated the politics of America, resulting in the creation of racist laws and cultural practices designed to subjugate non-whites. And the emblem of the confederacy...in all its manifestations, has long been the most recognizable banner of this political ideology. It’s the banner of racial intimidation and fear whose popularity experiences an uptick whenever black Americans appear to be making gains economically and politically in this country.

It’s a reminder how, for centuries, the oppressive status quo has been undergirded by white supremacist violence with the tacit approval of too many political leaders.


What's important now, Parker told us, is how people respond to the fires — and how seriously we take the damage. While the tense relationship between law enforcement and people of color might make it easy to be skeptical of investigations (and of police's conclusions about which fires were intentional and which were not), "that just underscores why that is so important. Not only the burnings but the response to the burnings [is] a measure of where we are as a country now," Parker said.

For example, while the FBI and local police investigate the fires and church members consider rebuilding, South Carolina legislators still haven't begun debating whether to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds, and a North Carolina branch of the KKK is planning a July 18 rally in favor of keeping the symbol of racial oppression where it is. Taking the flag down, the group says on its website, would be "cultural genocide."


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