Church Burning

St. Louis Police Investigate Possible Racial Motive in String of Fires at Black Churches

Image via J.B. Forbes / St. Louis Post-Dispatch / RNS

Police are stepping up patrols and trying to develop a profile of whomever has set six fires outside churches in predominantly black neighborhoods since Oct. 8, Police Chief Sam Dotson said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the Anti-Defamation League suggested a racial motive may be at play. In a prepared statement, the ACLU of Missouri’s executive director, Jeffrey Mittman, called the fires “domestic terrorism.”

“It is a sad truth that, throughout our nation’s history, African-Americans often have been met with astounding violence when they demand equality,” he wrote.

“Those who commit this violence seek to instill fear. This is why arson against predominantly black churches has been a frequent tool of white supremacy.”

Spate of Fires at Black Churches in St. Louis Area

Image via Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons / RNS

A reward of up to $2,000 is being offered for information leading to the arrest of the culprit in a string of fires that have now hit six predominantly African-American churches in and around St. Louis.

Ebenezer Lutheran Church, at 1011 Theobald Street, is the latest church to report damage.

Capt. Garon Mosby, spokesman for the St. Louis Fire Department, said members of the congregation called authorities about 9:25 a.m. Oct. 18 after arriving for a worship service and noticing damage. The fire was already out by the time firefighters arrived, Mosby said.

Although he could not provide additional details, Mosby said that the damage was not extensive. But that the incident was being investigated along with the five other church fires that have happened in the area since Oct. 8.

Our Unresolved Dilemma

In American political life, there is an issue about which we hear endless talk dealing with surfaces, and very little movement deep down in the body politic. Unless faced, it will prevent us from realizing our potential as a pluralistic democracy with a growing economy, and, instead, it will foster a poisonous resentment, even a hatred, that kills much of life's joy. The subject is race. Frequently, Americans have been unable to see deeper than skin color or eye shape to the heart and individuality of all our citizens. There were times when we allowed destructive impulses to triumph over our deeper awareness that we are all God's children. Occasionally, the violence of the few elicited the fears and seething anger of the many and prevented the possibility of racial harmony. It's an old story, and a sad one, too.

In 1963, four African-American girls in white dresses were talking prior to Sunday services in the ladies lounge of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Suddenly, the church was ripped apart by a bomb that killed the young girls instantly. There had been other bombings in Birmingham aimed at halting blacks' progress toward racial equality but they had not penetrated the national consciousness. After that Sunday's explosion, people of all races and all political persuasions throughout the country were sickened in spirit.

Coming 18 days after Martin Luther King Jr. had shared his dream for America from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the bombing was a stark reminder of how violently some Americans resisted racial healing. Yet the sense of multiracial outrage and solidarity that came out of this tragedy--combined with the seminal leadership of President Lyndon Johnson--led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and to the hope that the search for racial equality could lead to the emergence of a spiritually transformed America.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1996
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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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