Extinguishing the Fires This Time

CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 22:  The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is seen after a mass shooting five days that killed
CHARLESTON, SC - JUNE 22: The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is seen after a mass shooting five days that killed nine people, on June 22, 2015. 21-year-old Dylann Roof is suspected of killing nine people during a prayer meeting in the church in Charleston, which is one of the nation's oldest black churches. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On July 1, the Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina, was destroyed by fire. This was the eighth recorded African-American church burning since white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black churchgoers at a Bible study at Charleston's historic Emanuel AME Church on June 17.

Responding to the Mt. Zion burning, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley--who called for the removal of the Confederate flag in the wake of the Charleston massacre--was quick to join state law enforcement officials in saying the fire was caused by a "lightning strike," despite their failure to cite any eyewitness accounts to support this claim.

Lightning may not strike twice, but American racism plays by a different set of rules. The destruction of black churches and the destruction of black lives are terrifyingly intertwined--and neither seems to matter as much as they should.

Black churches have been burned, bombed, and subjected to routine acts of domestic terror since the birth of the nation. They are targeted because they pose a threat. "Mother Emanuel" itself was burned by the white citizens of Charleston after they discovered that one of its founders, Denmark Vesey, was planning a slave rebellion in 1822. When Roof chose this church to ignite a 21st century "race war," he did so intentionally. There is nothing new here.

Likewise with Governor Haley's rush to find a less troubling explanation--random misfortune rather than racist violence--for the church burning. When Mount Zion was last burned, in 1995, it was initially ruled "accidental" before investigators discovered that KKK members had committed the crime. This is not uncommon. Too often, authorities attribute church burnings to "natural" or "structural" causes--lightning strikes or faulty wiring--to produce quick determinations. So far, only three of the recent burnings have been ruled "arson." But is it a coincidence that eight black churches have burned--seven of them in the South--since the Charleston massacre?

The last time black church burnings received serious media attention was 20 years ago. After a string of arsons in Tennessee and Alabama during the winter of 1995-1996, Time declared a "national epidemic of violence against Black churches," and the Atlanta Journal and Constitution named it "the top religion story of the year." In response, President Bill Clinton announced the formation of a new federal task force--jointly comprised of the Departments of Justice and Treasury, the FBI and AFT--to oversee stronger mechanisms for the prevention and prosecution of these crimes. Clinton also signed into law the Church Arson Prevention Act, a bipartisan bill passed unanimously by both houses of Congress, which, among other things, provided millions of dollars of federal assistance to rebuild the burned churches.

This increase in federal attention continued until 2000, when President George W. Bush dissolved the multi-agency task force and eliminated the budget for federal loan assistance to burned churches, acts that were as destructive as they were ironic, given the Bush Administration's zealous support for "faith-based initiatives" and the Department of Homeland Security.

As we know from history, churches burn regardless of the political climate. According to data compiled by the National Coalition for Burned Churches during the 1990s, hundreds of black churches were burned in arson attacks, the overwhelming majority of which--more than 3 out of 4--occurred in the South. These disturbing patterns persisted during the 2000s, and they continue today. The most recent church burnings are part of a long history of racial terror that dates back to the early republic, stretches through the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement, and continues in the Age of Obama.

So how do we stop the fires this time?

First, there must be a federal response to all church burnings--the ones that get media attention and those that don't--based on thorough investigation, not premature speculation or hasty determination. This would involve not only re-authorization of the Church Arson Prevention Act and reconstitution of the federal multi-agency task force, but also renewed commitment to prevention, protection, and prosecution. As the first African-American President with deep ties to the black church, President Obama is uniquely situated to be a moral leader in the face of this ongoing crisis.

Second, there must be a concerted effort to marshal resources to assist congregations, many of whom lack the financial capital for costly legal representation, permit fees, and rebuilding materials. This would involve the commitment of public funding--through the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Interior, and Treasury--as well as private donations from individuals and in kind donations from corporations and local businesses.

Third, there must be a collective effort to rebuild the churches that have been destroyed. This would involve student volunteers, professional contractors and carpenters, and people of good faith--especially white people--who are searching for ways to do good works in the face of persistent racism and religious bigotry.

Finally, we must commit ourselves to genuine national reconciliation. This will require an honest reckoning with the difficult truths of America's long history of racism and white supremacy, and a wholesale reconstruction of the nation's social fabric based on the principle and practice that we are our neighbor's keepers.

We are called to this common destiny in Acts 17:26: "[God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth." It's long past time for us to heed this truth. And we must get our act together before one more black church--one more black life--is destroyed by the fires we have the power to extinguish, once and for all.

Reverend Rose Johnson is the former Executive Director and founding member of the National Coalition for Burned Churches and Community Empowerment. Dr. Timothy Patrick McCarthy teaches history and public policy at Harvard University, where he directs the Alternative Spring Break Church Rebuilding Program. Both have been active in the national church rebuilding effort since the 1990s.