JUNE 12, 1996
Elizabeth Farnsworth looks at how a South Carolina community is dealing with the burning of one of it's African-American churches.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Because of the President's visit, the national spotlight shone for a while today on Greeleyville, South Carolina, and on Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church. A NewsHour team, along with Time Magazine religion correspondent Richard Ostling, was there a week ago taping a documentary.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Greeleyville is usually a quiet kind of place. About 500 people live here, 300 black and 200 white. There's one main street, four white churches, two black churches in town, and six nearby, including Mt. Zion. Nearby textile factories employ some townspeople, but unemployment for the county stands at around 17.5 percent. The No. 1 cash crop is tobacco, just as it was when slaves worked the outlying fields. Before it burned, Mt. Zion Church was located here off a dirt road just outside of town. With close to 200 members, Mt. Zion was one of the largest black churches in the area. Arsonists burned it down on June 20th last year. At first, firemen told the pastor it was an electrical blaze.
TERRANCE MACKEY, Pastor, Mt. Zion Church: I couldn't believe that when it happened, I just couldn't believe it, and the--one of the firemen said to me that it was an electrical fire, happened by electrical, and I said to him, "How could that be? We turn the breaker box off when we leave church every Sunday. There's no juice coming to the church." He said, "Well, I don't know, but it's an electrical fire." I said, "Okay."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But two weeks later, Timothy Welch and Gary Cox were arrested after pawning a PA system from the church. They were charged with arson and burglary. Welch was carrying a Ku Klux Klan membership card when he was arrested. In his statement to police, he said he and Cox urinated on the floor of Mt. Zion and then set the church on fire using hymn books as kindling.
REV. TERRANCE MACKEY: The pastor's office was in the corner. Right next to that was a pulpit and the choir loft.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Pastor Mackey told "Time" Magazine's Richard Ostling the loss was devastating to the Mt. Zion community.
REV. TERRANCE MACKEY: It was a shock, a surprise, that the church had burned down because most of them grew up here. It was the only church they ever attended all their lives. Their parents attended this church and their grandparents attended this church. You know, the church isn't safe anymore. The only safe haven you have basically is the church. When you can't go there for refuge any longer, where are you going to go?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Parishioner Amelia Dunmore is the fourth generation of her family to attend Mt. Zion.
AMELIA DUNMORE, Member, Mt. Zion Church: Well, for everybody that went to that church, you know, it--I would say it was just one of the family had died when we lose the church.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Rev. Mackey and his parishioners didn't waste time mourning. They got permission to use the town's community center and were up and running the first Sunday after the fire. They also started raising money to rebuild. They needed $220,000. $110,000 would come from insurance. They got a $90,000 loan from a local bank, $20,000 from black and white churches around the country, and a little over $1,000 from local white churches and individuals. So there was some local help and concern as of a week ago, Rev. Mackey said, but not a lot.
REV. TERRANCE MACKEY: The shocking part to me, even to this day, I have not heard from the mayor of this town, nor the city council of this town, nor the chief of police of this town since it happened.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But the national assistance Mackey solicited made rebuilding possible, and last week, the new pews were being installed. Meanwhile, the pastor was working to lift the veil of silence he felt covered the more than 30 church burnings throughout the South. Parishioners weren't speaking up, he said, partly because a long history of racism left them intimidated.
REV. TERRANCE MACKEY: People are afraid to speak out. That's the biggest fear in our country is people are afraid, they deny things that are going on. They live here. They bank here, and they drive their cars here. They know their cars, and they're afraid that somebody is going to see it, hear it, and retaliate against it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But Rev. Mackey and other ministers from burned churches did speak out. So did the National Council of Churches which, along with several civil rights organizations, sent a delegation to visit many of the arson sites. Meanwhile, state and federal agencies continued their investigations.
REV. TERRANCE MACKEY: I'm the pastor of Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And last month, Congress got involved when Mackey, himself, testified before the House Judiciary Committee. Then on Saturday, the Mt. Zion pastor stood next to President Clinton as he condemned the burnings in his weekly radio address from the Oval Office.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I want to present to Rev. Mackey a little plaque I brought.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And today the President and Pastor Mackey stood together in South Carolina in front of the rebuilt church.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: You think about what happened--90 years ago when the other church was built, people might have expected things like a church bombing. That was the time of Jim Crow and there were even lynchings in the South. It was a time of abject poverty, worse than anything we call poverty today. It was 90 years ago an expression of faith and courage for people to get together and build a church. But it was the church that saved the people until the civil rights revolution came along. And it is, therefore, I think doubly troubling to see our native South engulfed in a rash of church burnings over the last year and a half. We have to say to all of you who've been afflicted by this we know that we're not going back to those dark days, but we are now reminded that our job is not done. Dr. King once said "What self-centered men have torn down, other centered men can build up." (applause) The men and women of Mt. Zion have shown us the meaning of these words by refusing to be defeated and by building up this new church.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After the President spoke, the Rev. DeVere Williams, pastor the largest white church in town, gave the benediction.
REV. DeVERE WILLIAMS, United Methodist Church: We pray that in some way this event will help us to draw closer as a community, that we will grow in and build on the love and caring that is already here. We are thankful for the efforts made by our government leaders to produce equality among all our people. But we know, merciful Lord, that love cannot be legislated, that relations will not really change until hearts are changed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After all the hoopla and the President and his entourage were gone, Pastor Mackey told producer Kate Olson what the visit meant to his church and community.
REV. TERRANCE MACKEY: This community will never ever be the same again. This is very small community of people, and they'll be just--it will not be the same way it was before. I believe it transformed this community, to let them know in this community and the Southeast total that the President is concerned about what is happening to these churches. For this community, it bridged the gap that was there from the time when I was here the past five years. It bridged the gap between myself and the, the mayor of the town. Him and I have both rode together in the, in the car--with the President in his limo, and we talked. We shared some things with the President there, just the three of us, and we bridged some gaps that we had because he's different from me, and I didn't agree with him, and we bridged some gaps that were there, and I think it's a positive step in the right direction for this community.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Rev. Williams said he hoped the President's visit would make a difference but he wasn't sure.
REV. DeVERE WILLIAMS: I don't anticipate any dramatic, overnight changes. I hope we'll have some good white participation Saturday in the formal dedication of the church. It's a day-by-day type thing. We just have to keep working at it. It could be that somehow this will strengthen the community and bring us closer together.
(PEOPLE SINGING IN CHURCH)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church will be officially worshipping in its new building after a dedication this Saturday.