black church burnings Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina

Burning Churches Should Set Black Souls on Fire

The mysterious fires mustn't be lost in a rapidly-changing media cycle

by Stephanie Clintonia Boddie, July 8, 2015

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black church burnings Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina

People praying near the ruins of the Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina

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Shrug Avery was on to something in a tragically timeless way when she wailed, “God is trying to tell you something” in the 1985 “The Color Purple” climax. Indeed, we need to search for the signs found in the embers of eight burned Black churches in this, the time of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Aiyana Jones and now the Emanuel Nine.

The list of mysteriously burned churches is searing:

November 24, 2014:  Flood Christian Church, Ferguson, Missouri

June 21, 2015: College Hill Seventh Day Adventist in Knoxville, Tennessee

June 23, 2015: God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia

June 23, 2015: Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Gibson County, Tennessee

June 24, 2015: Briar Creek Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina

June 26, 2015: Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina

June 26, 2015: Greater Miracle Temple Apostolic Holiness Church in Tallahassee, Florida

June 30, 2015: Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina

Ku Klux Klan inscriptions on Glover Grove’s wall depict a haunting image of race-based hate reminiscent of the Jim Crow era. The Rev. Carlton Lee, pastor to Michael Brown’s family, says he believes the torching of Flood Christian was meant as White supremacist intimidation after calling for Officer Darren Wilson’s arrest; he was also the subject of no less than 71 death threats. Not all of these fires have been classified as arson, but at least four could be hate crimes. No matter the cause, the desecration of Black churches is particularly devastating.

Churches are the refuge and symbol of what Black people have created and owned for generations in a socioeconomic system designed to prevent self-determination and ownership by Blacks. With Black congregations contributing on average $10,317.98 per year for social and community services, the estimated 50,000 U.S. Black congregations represent trillions in property value and community services, ranging from food pantries and daycare to schools and shopping centers.

The so-called "bootstraps" that both conservatives and White liberals masquerading as progressive evoke when cutting or thwarting policies that will help the least of us can be found in the Black church.  Our sense of place in the American context springs from it. From this institution grew many of our historically Black colleges and universities, though beleaguered. Our notions of leadership, community and entrepreneurship emerge from this place.

Such acts of racial bigotry and intimidation pre-date the Civil War but in the 21st century, re-emerges reshaped and reinvented. As we learn more about dropout Dylann Roof, 21, who freely admits to slaughtering the nine parishioners to start a race war, we find he’s not too slow to know enough history to make him dangerous. Where did this man-child come from? That his sister launched a GoFundMe crowd-funding campaign to help pay for a wedding she insists was ruined by media coverage of her brother’s deeds provides a clue. As surely as the Black church provides context for Black life, Roof has a context and power source for his hate.

With a history of hundreds of attacks since their inception in 1788, the Black church has come through the fire, a purifying fire. In fact, Mother Emanuel is the site of the first recorded Black church arson. Denmark Vesey, one of Emanuel’s founders, left the white Presbyterian Church to join Rev. Morris Brown and about 4,000 Blacks to worship and organize independently in 1817. Willing to risk his own freedom, Vesey taught an Old Testament message of resistance and liberation. Fearful of its organizing strength, white supremacists burned down this church in 1822.

About a decade later, Black churches were outlawed in Charleston and forced underground. In 1865, Emanuel reorganized and continued to free those enslaved while growing to 44,000 members by 1877. 

According to scholar C. Eric Lincoln, white mobs initiated church burnings in 1829 in Cincinnati and through the 1830s in Philadelphia. These charred buildings symbolized for the perpetrators of hate, spiritual, social, cultural and economic destruction. For African-Americans, it reflected racial terrorism designed to kill the heart and soul of the Black community.

The 1950s Civil Rights Movement emerged with desegregation and the burning of Black churches on the rise. As African-Americans achieved progress through legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and integration, threats to white dominance led to more Black church attacks. One of the most brutal manifestations of racism, is the 16th Baptist Street bombing that killed four girls— Cynthia, Carol, Denise and Addie — and injured 14 others in Birmingham.

While we have made progress in education, African-Americans still face disparities on several frontscriminal justice, employment, housing, health and wealth. In Black churches, Black women often represent 70 percent of the membership, investing in these institutions often with little to give. For example, single Black women have a median household wealth of only $100 compared with single white women with a median household wealth of $41,500.

In response to more than 66 Black church burnings Congress unanimously voted to enact the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996. Still, arsonists set ablaze Black Macedonia Church of God in Christ, a predominately Black church in Springfield, Massachusetts, after Barack Obama was elected in 2008.

Fires burn. Eulogies celebrate the end of things. But the flickering embers beneath the ashes move us to get beyond symbols and symptoms toward action on policies, voter turnout, leadership accountability and challenging our silent so-called allies. We must remember in America, history is never a thing of the past, especially not ours. God is trying to tell us something, right now. Right now.

Stephanie Clintonia Boddie, Ph.D., is a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and Public Voices Greenhouse Fellow for Global Policy Solutions.

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