GREELEYVILLE, S.C. — Standing before a new church built to replace one torched by arsonists a year ago, President Clinton on Wednesday vowed to enlist the full power of the federal government to end an 18-month rash of burnings of black churches across the South.
The new Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, built on a plot of land carved from a cornfield outside this tiny, low-country hamlet, will house the 150-member congregation whose 90-year-old place of worship was burned to the ground last June 20.
"They can burn the building down but they couldn't burn the faith out," Clinton told a mixed-race crowd of about 600 people fanning themselves in the sweltering Carolina sunshine.
The 33 fires at black churches demonstrate that hatred, division and distrust still persist in the United States, despite the country's progress in race relations, Clinton said. When the original Mt. Zion church was built, Jim Crow laws were still in effect and lynchings of black people were common, he said.
The president pleaded to keep politics out of the tragedy, which he called "a problem of the heart."
But his opponents have accused him of exploiting the crimes for political gain. South Carolina Republican Gov. David Beasley said that Clinton's visit to his state looked like a campaign event.
"I only hope that the president is sincere and [I] look forward to hearing of his plans to help us in our battle to stop the fires," said Beasley, who turned down an invitation to share the podium with the president.
Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour renewed the debate later Wednesday in calling the president's trip "shameless, transparent politics." Clinton, responding at a later news conference, said that the Republicans were "turning into politics what is a very serious matter."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who preceded Clinton to the podium, decried elected officials who "seed the clouds" of hatred with "racist propaganda."
He said that politicians in blue suits use "thinly coded, veiled race symbols" to divide blacks from whites.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said that those who accuse Clinton of injecting politics into the church burnings are "mean and cruel and spiteful people."
"There ain't no way no KKK, no skinheads, no Nazis, no nasties, no publicans or Pharisees going to turn us around," Lowery said. "You can't scare us to death. It's too late."
The president said that a task force of 200 federal agents is investigating the church burnings. The group will meet today in Washington with U.S. attorneys and top FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents from the South to discuss the investigations. They also will talk about how to be more sensitive when questioning possible witnesses in the wake of complaints of bullying tactics by agents seeking information about the fires.
Clinton also has authorized the Department of Housing and Urban Development to guarantee private loans to rebuild destroyed churches and to devote community development block grant money for church restoration.
He also said that he supports a bipartisan bill to speed prosecution of church arson as a violation of federal civil rights statutes. The bill, which cleared the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, is sponsored by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).
A similar note was sounded by South Carolina Atty. Gen. Charlie Condon, a Republican, who attended the Greeleyville event.
"This is not going to be tolerated by the people of South Carolina of all racial groups and different backgrounds," Condon said. "I don't think we need new laws in this area. We'll show that by our prosecutions this will be stopped by the state of South Carolina."
Most of the crowd at the new Mt. Zion church applauded Clinton's appearance and expressed appreciation for his determination to stop the fires.
But James Greene, 66, a retired soil conservation officer, said that Clinton should have spoken out sooner.
"Why in heck did he have to wait until all these churches burned down before he came here?" asked Greene. "If these were black boys burning white churches, they'd have made some examples of them."
And John Kennedy, 52, of Greeleyville, said he was pleased that Clinton was devoting federal resources to the problem, but wondered whether the efforts would bear fruit.
"I thought it was very nice, but there's one question--will it help anything?" Kennedy asked.