Since the end of the Civil War, when freed slaves began to erect their own churches, racist whites have attacked those houses of worship to stir fear in black leaders and to quash efforts by blacks to improve their lives.
The recent attacks on Southern black churches have been a painful reminder of that history for African-American communities across the country.
Since the beginning of the year, 27 black churches have been burned down in the rural South. And an equal number of black churches have burned down in the past five years, according to the Justice Department.
"When you burn our churches, you are not only burning our house of worship," said the Rev. Ronald Sams, pastor of Massie Zion Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. He grew up in rural Alabama, one of the areas most victimized by the recent arson attacks.
"The church is the core of our community," he said.
"In small towns, losing your church means more than losing your place of worship," said historian Taylor Branch, who has written extensively about the civil rights movement. "It is the newspaper, the insurance company, the dance hall and the Elks Lodge all rolled into a church."
Branch said that in the past, churches have been burned or bombed because they were the staging ground for efforts to win equal rights, better wages or schools. But many of the targeted churches rarely organized anything more than a church supper.
"These churches are being burned without any cause," he said. "They are [burning] these churches for existing."
In an effort to reassure black communities, President Clinton yesterday visited Greeleyville, S.C., where the old Mount Zion AME Church was burned down a year ago. Meeting members of the congregation as they dedicated their new sanctuary a mile away from the rubble, he pledged to do everything he could to find those responsible for the fires.
Still, he said, any lasting solution rested on Americans reaching across racial lines to "show the forces of hatred they cannot win."
"They can burn the building down, but they couldn't burn the faith out," President Clinton said. "And so we celebrate the triumph of the faith of the members of this church."
While two suspects have been charged in the Greeleyville fire, federal officials say they are a long way from fulfilling President Clinton's promise. Since January 1995, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has made arrests in only four other cases.
Most of the burnings occurred in isolated, rural areas. Federal officials have speculated that many could be copycat episodes. Many of the churches had fewer than 50 members and were often left empty.
And most of the churches burned uncontrollably for hours, leaving little evidence for investigators.
In Alabama, Special Agent Jimmie Brown said the FBI has sifted ashes in search of clues. "At this point, we still don't know if the fires in our area can be considered arsons," he said. "We are calling them suspicious fires."
Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Parting the Waters," a history of the civil rights movement, said the recent church attacks conjure up the terrifying images of the church bombings of the 1950s and '60s. Black churches were bombed almost every week by racist whites. During Freedom Summer of 1964, a church burned almost every other day in Mississippi, the Baltimore resident said.
And public attention, now as then, has been slow in coming and unenthusiastic, he said. If one mainstream church or synagogue is burned, he said, panic sweeps instantly across the country.
Burnings of black churches go even further back than the civil rights movement. Michael Johnson, a professor of American history at the Johns Hopkins University, said that after the Civil War, black churches enjoyed a boom and began launching campaigns for better wages and working conditions for sharecroppers. That brought the wrath of white racist groups. The violence lasted until the early 20th century.
"Racist whites have always targeted churches to send the message to blacks that even there you are not safe; even there we can destroy you," said Sams, the Kentucky minister.
The recent wave of church burnings began two years ago, but they drew little attention until last week when a group of Southern black ministers met with Clinton to demand more aggressive investigations. The ministers also complained that they felt harassed by investigators who treated them more like suspects than victims.
Spiver Gordon, director of the Alabama chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said he urged the president and Attorney General Janet Reno to help devise strategies to protect rural black churches. One proposal was the deployment of National Guardsmen to areas where churches have been burned.
"We want the government to do whatever it takes to tell people in these communities that if you burn a church, you're going to pay for it," Gordon said.
Clinton assigned about 200 federal agents to investigate the church burnings. He also instructed the Treasury Department and the U.S. Marshals Service to issue guidelines on steps that churches can take to protect themselves from arson.
He also told the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help states use Community Development Block Grant money to assist with church rebuilding.
And Clinton called on Congress to appropriate an additional $10 million so the federal government could guarantee loans for rebuilding efforts. Republicans have criticized Clinton for his high-profile attention to the church burnings and his visit to the South Carolina church, saying the actions are little more than a campaign stunt and "shameless, transparent politics."
But Gordon of the SCLC said: "They can call it politics or whatever they want. We call it a good move and one that is long overdue."
Pub Date: 6/13/96