OCTOBER 10, 1996
Civil Rights Commissioner Dr. Mary Frances Berry says scores of church burnings since January 1995, are symptomatic of a larger racial problem in the U.S. - growing segregation.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Since January, 1995, more than 100 churches have been burned. These churches were mainly in the South and had predominantly black congregations. In July, the Civil Rights Commission held community forums in six southern states: Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Yesterday, Mary Frances Berry, the commission chairwoman, released their findings, arguing that church burnings were symptomatic of the larger racial problem in America. Ms. Berry is with us tonight. Thank you for joining us.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
October 10, 1996
A panel of experts discuss the state of race relations and affirmative action in America today.
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.
June 10, 1996
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Deval Patrick, and Kansas City minister, Rev. Mac Charles Jones react to reports that arsonists in the South have destroyed up to 32 African America churches over 18 months .
December 12, 1995
Charlayne Hunter-Gault conducts a newsmaker interview with the head of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume.
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MARY FRANCES BERRY: Thank you very much for having me.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Can you summarize for us the main finding of your study.
MARY FRANCES BERRY, Chair, Civil Rights Commission: Yes, yes. Since 1991, the Commission on Civil Rights has been engaged in looking at racial tensions around the country. We've held hearings mainly in urban areas--Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Chicago--and there we have multiracial communities, next to black-white problem. The church burnings took us to the South. And when we got there, we were looking at--to see whether there was racial motivation or religious discrimination, since that's part of our mandate too, associated with the fires.
And when we got there, in these forums, it was like turning over a rock and seeing a vermin underneath because what we found was no matter who set the fires, and in most cases are the ones where people have been already arrested, something like 2/3 were told by the federal officials may be racially motivated, and remember, most of them haven't been solved. What we found was racial tensions and the communities, and in some of them, the rural areas out of sight, out of mind, good old fashioned segregation. We found African-Americans who believe that even though they hold political office, they don't have political or economic power. We found whites who were disgruntled and who are angry.
The national issues are a backdrop to this, whether it's affirmative action, or some of the hot button issues that we talk about nationally, or the welfare queen or whatever, but feeling that locally in a climate of not much in the way of jobs and opportunity that somehow, somebody has something that they should have. And so you see this kind of tension in these areas.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Let me just--I want to get into that in a little more detail in a moment but just briefly, let's go back to the church burnings. You said that they may be racially motivated, so the question is still open, are you saying?
MARY FRANCES BERRY: The Justice Department and BATF indicate that right now--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The Bureau of Alcohol--
MARY FRANCES BERRY: And Drugs and Tobacco and Firearms.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Of the Treasury Department.
MARY FRANCES BERRY: Right. Who came and testified at all of our hearings, the regional FBI, the U.S. Attorney, all of these officials came in each one of the states who are responsible for that state and gave testimony about what was going on there. They say that in the arrests that have been made already--and there have been 230 burnings of churches in the South, with about 41 percent of those are African-American churches. And given the smaller number of African-American churches, you can see that there are a disproportionate number involved.
They say that 1/3 of the people who have been arrested so far have been African-Americans who somehow burn the church for some reason, 2/3 have been whites, and that in many of these instances, racial motivation does appear to be the issue where they're concerned.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But, of course, you won't know that definitively for some time.
MARY FRANCES BERRY: Right. Some people have been arrested already, and so they know this, but in many they have not. But what we were concerned about is that was the issue of the burnings. That's what took us there. We were concerned about who was rebuilding the churches, were they being rebuilt. We were also concerned because when we got there, some ministers told us that their churches had been repeatedly the subject of attacks of various kinds, whether it was graffiti or people leaving things, or maybe burning, and that local law enforcement officials had done nothing about it until this national focus came on the issue.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now you started to get into some of the other problems you found with banks and swimming pools, and you said yesterday that you found school segregation worse than in the days of Jim Crow.
MARY FRANCES BERRY: Right. You see school segregation in one town in Alabama in Green County, where we held a hearing, it was in the black public high school, which is referred to as the black public high school. It is an area to where one--one of the reporters asked where the swimming pool was, they said, do you mean the black public swimming pool, or the white public school, that either this by design or by the way people behave and haven't changed, these are the understandings. They--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Are these things--are they like--like in the days of Jim Crow separate and unequal?
MARY FRANCES BERRY: They are separate, and they are unequal. The black public high school has no air conditioning. It was about over 100 degrees, and the humidity was out of this world, and people were suffocating. We also visited the white academy. These communities have these white academies set up as soon as school desegregation was, was ordered. You can see the date when school desegregation was ordered, then you can see the date that the white academy was set up, and in these rural areas most of the white kids go to the white academy, and the black kids go to the black public school.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Okay. Air conditioning is--can be a problem in the South.
MARY FRANCES BERRY: Well--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Especially when it's hot, but were there other things too that--
MARY FRANCES BERRY: Well, clearly, you can see the disparities, whether it's equipment in the schools, whether the kinds of books were available to principals, gave testimony in this particular area about the deficiencies in the schools, and where these kids had to attend school.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Are some places worse than others?
MARY FRANCES BERRY: Some places are worse than others. Rural areas where there is a great deal of joblessness and lack of economic opportunity, these are the worst places. And I really think that there's a need for somebody, and this was said at the forums, to deal with economic opportunity and the racial issues, because we think that the economic hardship issues exacerbate the racial tensions.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mm-hmm. You said yesterday at the--at your press conference that, uh, that we were too eager to explain away things based on race in this country. Is that what you meant, that we need to look at the economic, as well as the--
MARY FRANCES BERRY: What I mean is that instead of spending a lot of time arguing about whether the church arsons were important or unimportant, which there's a lot of ink been spread and a lot of air time on that, and paper. What we should do is say, yes, some of them were racially motivated, but we're more concerned about the communities in which these things happen. Let us look, use us an opportunity not only to rebuild the churches, and I'm happy that people came together to rebuild the churches, but let's look at this as an opportunity to change things in these counties so that when you go back 15 years from now they won't be the same and let's do something about the economic hardship there.
Let's come up with a development plan. Right now my state advisory committees are planning to meet with governors. The governor of Louisiana has already to meet with that Louisiana Committee to talk about a plan of action in those states to deal with race and economic hardship.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But one of the activists in Alabama said the commission came in 10 years ago, found the same thing, found the same conditions, and nothing happened.
MARY FRANCES BERRY: The only thing we can do--I don't intend to let this issue go away. That is why we are asking that there be a biracial committee set up in each one of these areas to come up with a plan of action for what they are going to do, the private sector, and government to change these things in those communities, and I intend to go back time and time again, and I'm not waiting ten years.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is it just in those communities--and briefly I need you to tell me--is it just there, or do you find this rising racial tension and economic disparity around the rest of the country?
MARY FRANCES BERRY: We started the hearings because the national statistics indicate racial tensions and economic disparity around the country, whether you're talking about communities in which there are high rates of black unemployment and where not only a lack of skills but discrimination is a factor and people not even being able to get jobs that do not require the skills, whether you're talking about police community relations, whether you're talking about sentencing disparities, in all of these areas we have seen affirmative action hot button issues like that. We have seen an increase in racial tensions and hate crime statistics and indicate that violence and abuse against African-Americans and other people of color has been increasing over the last few years.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Dr. Berry, thank you for joining us.
MARY FRANCES BERRY: Thank you.