GREELEYVILLE, South Carolina -- The churches are of different denominations, separated by state and county lines, and by their unique settings and surrounding communities; yet the number and potential pattern have raised alarms.
Since June 17, when nine black parishioners were gunned down by a white supremacist inside a South Carolina church as they held a Bible study, more than a half dozen black churches, most of them in the South, have burned. Some have been scarred, others leveled to the ground. And now, congregations are rethinking security measures heading into the holiday weekend, and people nationwide are asking, including on social media, Who is burning black churches?
The latest incident, here in Greeleyville, where Mt. Zion AME Church was engulfed in flames Tuesday night, collapsing the roof of the red brick structure in the small, rural town about 50 miles from Charleston, attracted a now familiar phalanx of media Wednesday.
It was the seventh southern church fire to be reported nationwide, plus another in Ohio. And while South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told MSNBC's Craig Melvin that Tuesday night's fire was was the result of at least four lightning strikes -- not arson or anything sinister -- investigators on the ground say no determination has been made.
“If the roof hadn’t collapsed, and we wouldn’t have had the amount of debris,” a cause of the fire could have been found by now, said Williamsburg County fire chief Randy Swinton at the scene of the fire, where investigators continued to pour over the ruined structure.
The church was built in 1996 to replace the sanctuary (about a mile away, in its original location) that was burned to the ground in June 1995 by members of the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. That fire, and one the arsonists set the following night at Macedonia Baptist Church, led to a landmark $37.8 million jury verdict against four Klan members, the Klan’s national organization in North Carolina, and the hate group’s South Carolina chapter and its leader, self proclaimed “Grand Dragon” Horace King. At the dedication of the new Mt. Zion on June 12, 1996, President Clinton told the congregation, “We must come together as one America to rebuild our churches, restore hope, and show he forces of hatred they cannot win.”
Nineteen years later, southern state governors and legislatures, including in South Carolina, are grappling with the question of whether to continue flying the Confederate flag in places of prominence in their state capitols, and many are opting to remove it. This after Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old alleged Charleston massacre gunman, wrapped himself in that flag on his website and in the manifesto posted there before the shooting spree.
Amid the debate over the meaning of the rebel flag, hate groups like the KKK are firing back, saying that removing the flag is tantamount to “erasing white history.” One Klan group is planning a march in Columbia, South Carolina, in the coming weeks to protest the proposed removal of the flag from a memorial across from the statehouse.
Despite the Confederate flag’s sudden and rapid fall from grace in official quarters of the deep south, for many African-Americans, the flag’s close relative in the history of hatred and terrorism against black citizens -- the church bombing -- is alive and well.
To date, only three of the seven known fires have been labeled as arson. And not one has been designated a hate crime.
Eight days, eight churches
The first fire to be noted by the national media took place in the early morning hours of June 22nd, at College Hills Seventh Day Adventist church in Knoxville, Tennessee. Bales of hay placed at several locations on the church’s property, including at the front door, were ignited, in what authorities are calling an act of arson.
The next day, God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia, burned, in a blaze that the local fire department, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have labeled arson.
Then, on Wednesday, June 24, Briar Creek Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, burned, severely damaging the sanctuary and destroying an education building on the grounds, causing $250,000 in damage. That fire, too, is being investigated as an act of arson. Charlotte Fire Department Senior Investigator David Williams told the Associated Press that a probe has determined the fire “was intentionally set.”
From there, the incidents get murkier.
A fire at historic First Presbyterian Church of Fruitland in Gibson County, Tennessee, on June 24 was initially thought to have been caused by a lightning strike. The fire gutted the sanctuary, built in the 1800s, and the state fire marshal and the ATF are continuing to investigate the cause.
Two days later, on June 26, in the early morning hours before President Obama delivered the eulogy for State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, and one of the nine victims of the massacre there, 911 calls began coming in at just before 3:30 a.m., saying Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, about two and a half hours from where the president was to speak, was aflame.
The pastor, Rev. Bobby Jean Jones, told local media the church had been targeted in the past with KKK slogans scrawled on its walls. Parishioners insisted the fire was unlikely to be caused by lightning or an electrical problem, as Rev. Jones is a licensed electrician. The fire is still under investigation and its cause unknown.
The same day, a fire at Greater Miracle Temple in Tallahassee, Florida, caused $700,000 in damage. The church building has been declared a total loss. The state fire marshal is investigating, and investigators are pointing to exposed wires on the building as a possible cause.
The following day, fire engulfed College Heights Baptist Church in Elyria, Ohio, though investigators have since ruled out arson in that blaze, fire Chief Richard Benton told the Chronicle Telegram newspaper.
Federal investigators, including the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, are assisting local and state investigators in probing each of the incidents, though federal law enforcement officials say they have seen no evidence so far, that the fires are linked, or that any of the fires were hate crimes. “There is no evidence at this point to link these incidents,” said Paul Bresson, unit chief for the FBI National Press Office on Monday. “Investigation into the causes of these fires by ATF and local authorities remains ongoing.”
On Tuesday, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said despite the number of fires, and the obvious specter of attacks on black churches dating back hundreds of years in the nation’s history, “the ide of a grand conspiracy is highly unlikely.” There is no clear pattern that has emerged linking the fires. There were no reports of hate-filled graffiti scrawled on or near the churches; no word of activity by organized hate groups preceding the blazes.
Potok called it “entirely possible” for some of the incidents to be hate-fueled but isolated acts of vandalism. “It could be angry individuals not connected to actual hate groups, or it could simply be a bizarre, but real set of tragic coincidences." In fact, he stipulated, the sheer number and proximity of church fires rightly raises alarms.
With news of the seventh southern church fire, however, Potok said on Wednesday that SPLC was on “full alert.”
“It certainly raises the stakes,” he said of the incident. “I think it’s shocking. We of course don’t know what the cause was,” for the Mt. Zion blaze. “But it seems just incredible that we’ve seen another church burn. ... We’ve got all hands on deck here.”
And an ATF official at the scene of the Mt. Zion fire told NBC News that while federal investigators are cautious about labeling such incidents, this many fires in black churches, in such close regional proximity, is certainly “not the norm.”
‘Hopeful’ it wasn’t hate
Local residents who gathered at Mt. Zion in the sweltering heat Wednesday afternoon said they are cautiously hopeful that the investigation will find an innocent cause for the blaze.
Though the building was relatively new, Chief Swinton said electrical and other building fires happen “all the time.” Still, Swinton said that despite the heavy lightning during part of the night Tuesday, there were no other fires reported in the area that night, either before or after the 911 calls about Mt. Zion began coming in at around 8:30 p.m.
The church is isolated, about a mile from the nearest structure, and situated amid clusters of pine trees, which Rev. Dr. Carl. L. Anderson, a local AME pastor and South Carolina State Representative, said have a tendency to attract lightning.
Anderson said he’s hoping that lightning is indeed what caused the fire.
“The teams have been out here: the FBI the A team, the FBI ... the fire department, they have done an excellent job, making sure the fire was out in a reasonable amount of time, and we really do thank them,” Anderson said. “I was here in June 1995 when this church burned to the ground: it was arson then, and I’m just prayerful that it’s not arson this time.”
Staring out over the yellow tape at the church’s remains, Anderson‘s wife, Dorris, seemed to oscillate between hopefulness and despair. “I’m just so hurt,” she said, when asked if she thought the fire was deliberately set. “How could people do something like this? Where is God in them?” Then, she expressed the hope that many standing alongside her shared. “I just pray that it was weather, and not someone that intentionally did this.”
William Henryhand, whose family operates a funeral home in neighboring Kingstree, and who oversaw a funeral at Mt. Zion just over a week ago, expressed confidence in the investigators, too, particularly fire chief Swinton, whom he knows personally, and who is African-American. But he seemed plainly unconvinced that the Mt. Zion fire could have been accidental.
“My gut tells me this wasn’t a lightning strike,” the 30-year-old said, standing on the sidewalk beside the church. “It’s something racial. 'Cause it’s already happened here before, and we know it’s in the area,” he said of racial strife, and racist attacks on black churches, including Mt. Zion in 1995.
If the investigation returns a verdict of “no hate crime” in the burning of Mt. Zion, Henryhand says the black community will remain strong. “We’re still gonna band together … and try to make it through, and rebuild.”