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Black churches burning

In the week following the murderous rampage in which nine black parishioners were shot and killed at a church in Charleston, S.C., a series of mysterious fires at African-American churches across the South has revived the specter of racist violence against a core institution of the black community. Investigators have determined that at least some of the fires were set by arsonists, though they have not confirmed the crimes were racially motivated. Yet at a time when the Confederate flag and other symbols of white supremacy have come under renewed attack, it would be foolish to dismiss the sudden upsurge in black church burnings as mere coincidences or youthful pranks. They are yet another sharp reminder that the progress made toward a more just society in recent decades has not eliminated the racism that poisons our national life.

Last week saw fires of suspicious origin destroy black churches in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. African-American churches in the South have been targeted by violent extremists throughout American history as a way of terrorizing black communities and enforcing white supremacy. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where 21-year-old Dylann Roof allegedly shot nine people gathered for an evening prayer service, was itself burned to the ground before the Civil War by a white mob enraged by its abolitionist sympathies and aid to blacks fleeing slavery. Perhaps Mr. Roof was cognizant of that history when he reportedly traveled more than 100 miles from his home to carry out an attack there.

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Although arson targeting black churches has decreased somewhat over the past two decades, its symbolic meaning remains potent. In the 1960s the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls in Birmingham, Ala., sparked a national revulsion against the violence committed by white racist groups and, ironically, helped spur passage of the very civil rights laws those groups aimed to prevent. Three decades later another uptick in attacks on 37 black churches in the South prompted President Bill Clinton to set up a church-arson investigative task force and press Congress to increase the penalties for arsonists convicted of burning churches because of the race or ethnicity of their parishioners.

Last week's church burnings follow a pattern of attacks carried out during times when once rigid racial strictures appear to be collapsing. On top of the election in 2008 of the nation's first black president, the combination this year of widespread protests over the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers and demands for the removal of Confederate symbols from public buildings and major retail stores may have provoked a backlash among hate groups who fear any change that threatens their racist ideology. Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, calls the surge in black church burnings at this particular moment in history "very, very suspicious" even if investigators ultimately can't prove they were all hate crimes.

The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have joined the investigations being conducted by local authorities into who set the recent fires. Officials say it is still too early to label the attacks as hate crimes and that in some cases the motivation of the perpetrators may never be known.

Yet Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings was surely right when he said last week that much as he applauded leaders in South Carolina and other states for taking steps toward removing the Confederate flag from government buildings and license plates, banishing that "symbol of racial hatred" was only a first step. "Now we must begin to address racial disparities and inequalities themselves," Mr. Cummings said. That is the challenge facing the country in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting and the black church burnings that have followed, and it must be met if America is ever to fulfill its promise of equal justice for all.

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