POLITICS OF HATE: BACKGROUND REPORT
JUNE 10, 1996
Arsonists in the South have destroyed up to 32 African America churches over 18 months, causing the federal government and the church community to call for rigorous action against racial violence. Elizabeth Farnsworth presents a background report, followed by a discussion with Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Deval Patrick, and Kansas City minister, Rev. Mac Charles Jones.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Four black churches have burned in the past week, and Washington is hearing about it. Praise and warm support greeted the African-American pastors who came to the Pleasant Lane Baptist Church in Southeast Washington last night. They were part of a National Council of Churches delegation here over the weekend. This was a service of healing for ministers whose churches had burned in the recent epidemic of arson fires in the South. During the service, parishioners showed the congregation what was left of the burned buildings. Rev. D. Donaldson of the Salem Baptist Church in Tennessee recalled how he felt when he received the call that his church was on fire.
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REV. D. DONALDSON, Fruitland, TN: It is a hurting feeling that reaches deep down within your soul. We've been through crises before. This is nothing new. We were hoping that it wouldn't happen but since it has, we've already been this way before. We know how to rejoice in times of sorrow, and I go to my seat thanking God for the ability to understand that they too must be forgiven.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But a few hours after Donaldson spoke about forgiveness, two other churches burned, these in Greenville, Texas, making it four black churches torched in the last week. The estimated total in the last 18 months is at least 32. Almost all the fires have occurred in the South. Some of the South's oldest historical black churches have been victimized. Last week, the 93 year old sanctuary of the Mathews Murkland Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, burned to the ground.
There were no fatalities, and there have been none in the other burnings so far. More than 200 federal agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms are, along with state and local authorities, investigating the fires. And the Justice Department is conducting a civil rights probe. So far, none of the investigations has found a national conspiracy linking the fires. A National Council of Churches delegation has been visiting the sites of the burned churches and has charged that federal officials have not been aggressive enough in their investigations. The Reverend Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership seconded those concerns in testimony last month before the House Judiciary Committee.
REV. JOSEPH LOWERY, Southern Christian Leadership Conference: It represents a 51st state in this nation--the state of denial. While we've been shocked as a nation at the rise of hate groups and right wing terrorists that have bombed federal buildings and militia groups that pose serious threats to democracy, we have downsized the racist nature of these groups.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This week, religious and civil rights leaders came to Washington to focus national attention on the epidemic of fires. On Saturday, two members of the delegation of pastors stood by President Clinton's side during his radio address.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: It is clear that racial hostility is the driving force behind a number of these incidents. This must stop.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: On Sunday afternoon, the ministers met with Attorney General Janet Reno at the Justice Department.
REV. JOAN BROWN CAMPBELL, National Council of Churches: There was no question in this meeting but what the message from the pastors was that frustration levels are very, very high. And people are becoming less and less patient as more and more churches are burned. And what the pastors are saying is this nation needs to say this is racially motivated, and we need to say it has to stop.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Assistant Attorney General Deval Patrick is heading the Justice Department's investigation.
DEVAL PATRICK, Assistant Attorney General: (Washington) The point is we will solve every one of these and those who are out there who are perpetrating these crimes and have not yet been caught rest assured, we will catch you, and we will prosecute you to the full extent of the law.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This morning, the delegation of ministers met with Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who has jurisdiction over the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms, or ATF. Afterwards, Rubin mentioned the pastors' criticism that the ATF and FBI interrogated parishioners too harshly.
ROBERT RUBIN, Secretary of the Treasury: I have worked with the ATF the year and a half now that I've been at Treasury, and I've developed great respect for the matter in which they carry out a very, very difficult job. On the other hand, clearly, a number of these ministers said to me that they feel that in the conduct of the investigation there have been insensitivities to the ministers and to members of the community, so I think we have a double objective here. On the one hand, we have to follow every lead, wherever it goes, and we are committed, committed to bringing the people who caused these fires to justice. And on the other hand, we also have to be very sensitive for the terrible, terrible situation with respect to these churches and the terrible, terrible situation with respect to the people in these communities.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The ministers then walked to the National Press Club, where they spoke to the media.
REV. MAC CHARLES JONES, Kansas City, MO: You cannot talk about black folk preventing those who are, who are caught up in white racist, white supremacist ideology from destroying their church. If you do that, you create a war because that will mean is that I'm going to have to sit out in front of my church with a gun or somebody's going to have to lay siege, and you're going to have a war that will not stop in rural areas, but given the climate of this country, it will be like a tinder box, and this country will explode.
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