A rash of church fires in the South, most of them at black churches, has religious leaders and civil rights activists concerned, particularly on the heels of the June 17 shooting at the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina that left nine African Americans dead. Arson is suspected in some but not all of the fires, and authorities have not yet found evidence to suggest the fires were racially motivated.
Here’s what we know and don’t know:
7 Churches Have Caught Fire In 5 Southern States Since June 21
Since June 21, seven churches have caught fire in five Southern states, all of them overnight and with no injuries reported. One church, Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Gibson County, Tenn., has a predominantly white congregation. However the churches in Knoxville, Tenn.; Macon, Ga.; Charlotte, N.C.; Warrenville, S.C.; Tallahassee, Fla.; and Greeleyville, S.C., are all known for their ties to the African-American community.
Arson Is Suspected In 3 Of The Church Fires
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is currently involved in five of the church fire investigations: Fruitland Presbyterian in Tennessee, God’s Power Church of Christ in Georgia, Briar Creek Road Baptist Church in North Carolina, The Greater Miracle Temple Apostolic Holiness Church in Florida, and Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, S.C. The ATF was also on the scene after Tuesday night’s fire at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, S.C.
The Knoxville Fire Department has said the fire on the grounds of The College Seventh Day Adventist Church showed signs of arson, as it appears that a bay of hale was intentionally set on fire, leading a nearby church van to burn and scorch the church’s exterior walls.
Arson Does Not Appear To Be At Play In 3 Of The Church Fires
The fire chief in Gibson, Tenn. told the L.A. Times that he is almost certain that church fire, which was at the predominantly white church, was started by lightning. In Tallahassee, the fire department has found the evidence that that church fire was started by an electrical issue when a tree fell upon a nearby wire.
The FBI and South Carolina’s state investigative agency have joined local officials’ investigation into the fire that gutted the Warrenville, S.C. church; so far they have been unable to determine a cause.
ATF: No Indication The Fires Are Racially Motivated
Even in the cases where arson is being considered, there is a little evidence found so far that shows the churches were targeted because of their ties to the African-American community.
“Everything is under investigation right now,” ATF spokeswoman Jennifer Cicolani told TPM Wednesday. “None of them at this point are racially-motivated or related.”
Officials in Knoxville have said vandalism more likely motivated the fire there.
Likewise, federal investigators have said there has been no ruling made as to whether the Macon, Georgia church was a hate crime, where the local fire chief also believes a hate crime is unlikely. In North Carolina, investigators have not found any early signs of a hate crime, though they have not ruled out the option entirely.
Congregations Are On Edge
There is a long history of white supremacists groups targeting black churches. In the 1990s, the rate of church fires, particularly in African-American churches, jumped considerably. Between 1995 and 1999, nearly 300 people were convicted for more than 200 church arson or bombings, according to a report by a federal task force in charge of addressing the trend, but only about 30 of those defendants were convicted of hate crimes.
The anxiety the recent string has prompted was exacerbated by the Charleston shooting and the racial tensions in the South it brought to a head. Mount Zion is only about 60 miles from Charleston, S.C., and caught fire only hours after the NAACP issued a warning to African-American churches to “take necessary precautions” in light of the recent fires.
“At this point, it’s not reaching the over 600 houses of faith that were burned down in just three years in the 1990s,” said Aundreia Alexander, associate general secretary for justice and peace at the National Council of Churches, in an interview with TPM. “But in light of things going on, people of faith, and particularly African Americans, are concerned.”
In addition to the Charleston shooting, she points to the fact that the KKK-affiliates previously burned down Mount Zion in 1995 as well as the announcement by the KKK that it will stage a pro-Confederate flag rally in South Carolina later this month as adding to the anxiety.
“A lot of these things they may not necessarily connected, but it is a heightened concern because of the combination of events happening at the same time,” she said.