Seven churches, six of them with predominantly African-American congregations, have burned in the past 10 days in South and North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.
Thousands of social-media users are tweeting the same question: Who is burning black churches?
Fires at six black churches in the South over the last 10 days have stirred fears that racial violence on houses of worship is making a comeback — perhaps as a backlash to criticism of the Confederate flag since nine black parishioners were slain, allegedly by a white supremacist, at a church in Charleston, S.C.
But investigators say only two of the blazes have been confirmed as arsons, not one has been declared a hate crime and they are not connected.
Church fires in South
June 21: College Hill Seventh Day Adventist, Knoxville, Tenn.
June 23: God’s Power Church of Christ, Macon, Ga.
June 23: Fruitland Presbyterian Church, Gibson County, Tenn.
June 24: Briar Creek Road Baptist Church, Charlotte, N.C.
June 26: Glover Grove Baptist Church, Warrenville, S.C.
June 26: Greater Miracle Temple Apostolic Holiness Church, Tallahassee, Fla.
June 30: Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, Greeleyville, S.C.
— The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Despite this, the flames have evoked a haunting reminder of white-supremacist terrorism from decades ago and ignited an online army of activists who coalesced during the street protests in Ferguson, Mo., and who have become a kind of rapid-deployment force for black America.
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This week, their focus has been on church fires, the latest at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in the tiny town of Greeleyville, S.C.
However, preliminary indications suggest the Mount Zion AME fire was likely caused by lightning and not the result of arson, according to a federal official, and at a news conference, Special Agent D. Craig Chillcott of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) urged patience as investigators did their work. “We haven’t ruled anything in or anything out at this point,” he said.
The fire in this town of just 375 brings to seven the number of churches, six of them with predominantly African-American congregations, that have burned in the past 10 days in South and North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.
Two of those appear to have been caused by lightning, and another was electrical. Investigators have found no evidence that any of the fires are connected and no indications of hate crimes. At least two were deliberately set, investigators said, with two still of unclear origins.
“We are in the early stages of these investigations, but at this time we have no reason to believe these fires are racially motivated or related,” the ATF said in a statement.
Some data suggest the number of church fires may not be that unusual. But as with police shootings after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, each church incident is getting extra scrutiny.
“Stop the passive language. Fires aren’t ‘breaking out’ at black churches. Black churches are being set on fire,” one person tweeted.
“At what point are we allowed to say black America is under attack?” tweeted another.
“If the government watched the KKK as hard as they do #BlackLivesMatter, maybe we would know #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches,” tweeted a third.
Each remark earned hundreds of retweets.
Their concerns were backed by the NAACP’s president, Cornell William Brooks.
“The spike in church burnings in Southern states over the past few days requires our collective attention,” especially after the June 17 slayings in Charleston, he said in a statement Wednesday. “When nine students of Scripture lose their lives in a house of worship, we cannot turn a blind eye to any incident.”
The alarm echoes concerns raised in the 1990s when a surge of church arsons — especially against black churches in the South — led to tougher arson laws and creation of a church arson task force made up of federal and local officials.
Of 827 arsons, bombings or attempted bombings at religious buildings that the National Church Arson Task Force investigated between 1995 and 1999, at least 269 involved black churches, 185 of them in the South.
That ugly time remained fresh in the mind of Greeleyville, S.C., Mayor Jessie Parker, who visited the smoldering remains of the city’s Mount Zion church on Wednesday.
Twenty years ago, Ku Klux Klan members burned Mount Zion AME. On Wednesday, Parker urged patience as investigators worked to determine the cause of the latest fire. “It gives you an ill feeling,” he said. “It brought back all those old memories.”
Whether the recent fires are part of a backlash to the national mood since Charleston is unclear.
Church fires happen all the time, according to fire-response data gathered by the National Fire Protection Association. Adding funeral-home blazes — which the association does in its data — there were as many as five such fires a day across the U.S. in 2011. Although that sounds like a lot, it’s about half as many as in 1980.
Sometimes, the stricken churches are old and maintained by volunteers instead of professionals. Steeples present a high-profile target for lightning. And cooking implements may have been left on after parishioners and clergy left the building.
In 2011, the U.S. saw an average of about five arsons a week, according to the fire association’s data — a rather large number of church and funeral-home attacks that have received little national media attention.
The culprits often are teenagers and the fires are small, said Marty Ahrens, senior manager of fire-analysis services for the association.
“For some people, places of worship, maybe they’re like schools: a place of authority for kids” to target, Ahrens said. “Some of the arsons are just plain vandalism.”
Motives also varied widely: Some were vandals or pyromaniacs. Others tried to cover up burglaries or financial theft, or simply held grudges.