Confronting an 'Epidemic of Terror'

When a Forest Park, Illinois church burned in the 1980s, the congregation rallied under the theme “Touched by fire but not consumed.” That’s an apt description of the more than 50 African- American churches throughout the United States that have been firebombed since 1990.

The Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR), an Atlanta-based agency that monitors hate groups, has chronicled 57 cases of arson or serious vandalism at black churches in the past six years—with 36 of them in the last 18 months. While federal officials have admitted that “the numbers are chilling” and called the burnings “an epidemic of terror,” the government’s top civil rights official testified in May that no evidence of a widespread conspiracy linking the attacks has been found by the 200 federal agents investigating the cases.

Even if no single group planned the burnings, civil rights leaders point to a “cultural conspiracy,” fueled in part by white politicians’ attacks on affirmative action and welfare recipients, racially charged rhetoric from Pat Buchanan and radio talk-show hosts, and a general atmosphere of growing intolerance. “It’s not simply about black churches being burned,” Rev. Mac Charles Jones of the National Council of Churches (NCC) told Religion News Service. “It’s about a climate in this country that fosters racism.”

Laity and clergy from the torched churches gathered this spring on six different occasions and locations to share their stories, to strategize, and to seek accountability from government agencies. The meetings were convened by the NCC, CDR, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, a 30-year-old legal organization that was initiated to support the Mississippi Freedom Party of the 1960s.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1996
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