DURING THE HEIGHT of the modern civil-rights movement, black churches - the rallying point for many civil-rights demonstrations - often were vandalized, bombed or set afire.
Now, in actions reminiscent of that era, a series of African-American churches in the South have been destroyed by suspicious fires.
Across the South the blazes have resurrected memories of a time when black churches were attacked in retaliation against efforts to register blacks to vote or desegregate public facilities.
For example, the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which killed four girls, was one of the most infamous incidents of racial violence during the civil-rights movement.
"Evil has reared its ugly head in West Alabama," said Rep. Earl F. Hillard of Alabama. "In my district in Greene County, one of the poorest counties in America, someone or some group with malicious intent destroyed four black churches, one which was over 100 years old. I'm appalled at the news."
On Thursday, a black church in northern Oklahoma became the 34th to be torched in 18 months. The incident occurred a day after President Clinton went to Greeleyville, S.C., and toured the ruins of a church that burned last year.
Clinton called for racial harmony and said the church fires proved that while much progress has been made in building a bridge between black and white America "our job is not done."
The president said he had asked Attorney General Janet Reno to convene a meeting of U.S. attorneys, FBI agents and officials from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to coordinate investigations under civil rights and other laws.
But the president also said that any lasting solution rested o Americans reaching across racial lines to "show the forces of hatred that they cannot win."
Clinton ignored Republican critics who said his visit to the Sout Carolina arson site was little more than a campaign stunt designed to strengthen his already strong support among black voters.
But several black leaders rebuked Clinton's GOP critics, wh included House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas and South Carolina Gov. David Beasley.
Richard Allen Leonard, a South Carolina African Methodis Episcopal Church elder, said those questioning Clinton's motives were "mean and cruel and spiteful people" who did not want racial harmony.
"No KKK, no skinheads, no Nazis, no nasties, no Republicans, n pharisees - nobody turn us around," Leonard said.
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said Republicans "are sendin signals, they are sending messages" by trying to repeal affirmative action programs and cut federal financing for agencies that enforce anti-discrimination laws. He specifically criticized House Speaker Newt Gingrich and GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole.
Other civil-rights leaders are equally adamant on the need to address the spate of fires.
"These are acts of terrorism and we hope the law-enforcement officials will leave no stone unturned as they did [in the federal office bombing] in Oklahoma to try to bring the perpetrators to justice," said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), based in Atlanta.
"If their purpose is to intimidate black folks, they're doomed to fail," Lowery said. "It won't work any more today than it did at an earlier time."
One blaze on Jan. 8 in Knoxville, Tenn., destroyed the nondenominational Inner City Church, where NFL Green Bay Packer Reggie White is an associate pastor.
Racial graffiti spray-painted on a back door of the church was not demolished during the firebombing. Gunpowder, 18 Molotov cocktails and about 75 gallons of gasoline and kerosene were used to destroy the two-story brick church, according to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) officials in Nashville.
Epithets spray-painted on the interracial church read "Die, nigger, die," and "Nigger lovers."
Among hundreds of letters to the church, a 3-by-5-inch card with singed corners was opened two weeks after the fire.
According to reports, the card contained racial slurs and also said the church's donations would be better spent on the families of Los Angeles murder victims Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
The FBI confirmed they have the note but declined to discuss details.
West Tennessee's all-black Macedonia and Johnson Grove Baptist churches, in neighboring Madison and Crockett counties, respectively, were set ablaze on Jan. 13, 1995, within 90 minutes of each other.
"Obviously, we suspect that there is a racial motivation," saidClayton Peoples, district attorney general for Gibson, Crockett and Haywood counties in West Tennessee. "But there has been nothing in the way of racial epithets or bragging."
Hate material - which, according to news reports, said, "We will fight against interracial churches, integrated schools and organizations" - was also found in the parking lot of a Tennessee bank.
Not surprisingly, from the ashes has risen a steady stream of support.
"Someone who is trying to do harm has really done a lot of good," said Rev. Daniel Donaldson, 43, minister of Salem Baptist Church, the site of an arson attack in Fruitland, Tenn. "This fire has drawn a lot of people together, both black and white."
By now, a resurgence of Klan activity in Alabama is being linked to the fires - at least by some investigators.
"The concentrated activity used to be in Georgia," said Loretta Ross, founder of the Atlanta-based Center for Human Rights Education and former research director for the Center for Democratic Renewal, which monitors hate groups.
She says skinheads - young, white supremacist Nazi-worshippers - have become the front-line warriors in racial hatred.
"The older seasoned racists are hiding behind them," Ross said.
Jim Cavanaugh, ATF special agent in charge in Birmingham, says four of the Alabama fires were declared suspicious "because we had three in one county and two in one night."
But Ross, frustrated with the pace of investigation, said, "We need to call a spade a spade. These are hate crimes."
The same day that Alabama's Little Zion Baptist and Mount Zoar Baptist churches went up in a fire on Jan. 11, a local newspaper carried an article about the sentencing of two white men who admitted vandalizing three other black churches last year.
A third man convicted in the incidents reportedly killed himself.
The convicted men had admitted smashing pews, shattering windows and pulpits and, in one account, crashing a glass chandelier through a portrait of Moses and the Ten Commandments.
Residents of Greene County, Ala., which is 85 percent black, may have thought they had turned the corner on this kind of overt racism.
Spiver W. Gordon, SCLC president in Greene County, said: "Whoever did this had to pass white churches to get to these black churches. They had to have known where these churches were because they're off the beaten path in obscure locations. All of this is very puzzling. We have not had any serious racial problems like this, not even during the '60s."
Displaced church members are having services in homes, recreation facilities and other neighboring church fellowship halls. The congregations are focusing on rebuilding.
Meanwhile, gone from Tennessee's Salem Baptist Church are a 100-year-old Bible and original obituaries of church members from the late 1920s.
"My great-grandmother's obituary was in that old Bible," Donaldson remembers. "We lost some things that could never be replaced. However, we are not allowing Satan to gain any type of victory in this."
Pub Date: 6/16/96