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New Wave of Attacks Afflicts Black Churches in the South

Racism: Since January 1995, 23 fires have been set. African American leaders are concerned, but officials see no conspiracy.

May 05, 1996|DAN SEWELL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — At 4 a.m. on Jan. 8, the phone rang at the home of the Rev. David Upton. The urgent message from one of his congregants: "The church is on fire!"

The pastor anxiously negotiated his way through half a foot of snow, only to find the two-story brick building engulfed in flames. For seven hours, he stood and watched the increasingly futile efforts to save it.

"I thought of all the memories--the services, the weddings, the children baptized," Upton said. "Our child-care center was on track to open in a month. Everything was just going up in smoke."

When the fire settled down to a smolder, he saw something that sickened him even more. On a back door had been painted: "Die N----- Die!" and "White Is Right."

"It was something that seemed ancient," Upton said.

Three months later, just before Easter Sunday, as bulldozers piled up the remains of the Inner City Church, Elijah Grake, 74, poked around the fringes of the rubble, carrying on a dialogue as he searched for anything to salvage.

"I just don't understand it. It's a mystery to me why anyone would do this," he said.

He glanced around quickly and then lowered his voice: "I've been around a long time. I'm an old Army veteran . . . served in Europe in the war. I don't need to talk about integration, racists or anything like that.

"I think it's the devil that done this. The devil trying to convince the Christian people to turn away," he confided. "Well, they have to hold on. Hold on faster and stronger than ever."

Standing tall and undamaged over the debris left by the estimated 18 Molotov cocktails, the gasoline and the kerosene was a sign depicting a black hand clasping a white one. It carried this slogan:

"Together We Can Make a Change."

*

Like the return of a biblical plague, predominantly black churches in the South are enduring a wave of vandalism, burnings and firebombings reminiscent of the attacks that took place during the height of the anti-integration era more than 30 years ago--the most notable being the 1964 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four schoolgirls.

Though no one has been killed or injured in the current wave, federal agents are investigating 23 church fires that have been set since January 1995--16 since Christmas alone.

A separate list expanded to include vandalism--compiled by the Center for Democratic Renewal, which monitors white supremacist groups and hate crimes from the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta--shows that 45 Southern black-congregation churches or lodges have been attacked from January 1990 through February 1996.

"When you pull them together, when they start adding up--10, 15, 25, 40--you realize that something is going on here far beyond isolated incidents," said the Rev. MacCharles Jones of the National Council of Churches.

Federal and local investigators say they lack evidence of any concerted campaign of what some black leaders are calling racial "domestic terrorism.'

The Center for Democratic Renewal says no arrests have been made in 33 of the 45 attacks it recorded. But the 25 people arrested in the other cases all were white males aged 15 to 45, the center said.

Some have ties to white supremacist groups and many have expressed racist views, but investigators say they lack evidence of any conspiracy linking them.

Three white men prosecuted in connection with vandalizing three western Alabama churches with a sledgehammer in 1994 said they had been drinking heavily beforehand. In Columbia, Tenn., three men sentenced in the 1995 arsons of two black churches also said they were drinking heavily, and one of them was outraged by interracial couples.

"I'm not sure that there is a common thread that links these fires," said Barrown Lankster, the black district attorney who prosecuted the Alabama case. "They may be copycat incidents, by individuals of the same kind of mentality."

Most of the fires have taken place in the middle of the night in poor, rural areas, destroying a joyful refuge.

"It's a cruel act, and those who do it understand the cruelty behind the act," said Melissa Fay Greene, whose new book "The Temple Bombing" recounts the attack by racists on an Atlanta temple in 1958--a time, she writes, when "the homemade bombs of segregationists were going off practically on a biweekly basis."

"They are attacking the soul of the black community," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Lowery, like other veterans of the civil rights movement, implored blacks not to be cowed.

"We've come too far, cried too many tears . . . to go back," Lowery said in March at an Atlanta meeting that brought together civil rights leaders and heads of the attacked churches to compare notes.

The group is compiling information and plans to develop a legal strategy aimed at seeking restoration damages from culprits. Also under discussion are a demonstration in Washington and possibly demanding a meeting with Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.

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