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This Far by Faith

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1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANINGTODAY: The Journey Continues
1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER
1526-1775: from AFRICA to AMERICA1776-1865: from BONDAGE to HOLY WAR1866-1945: from EMANCIPATION to JIM CROW
1946-1966: from CIVIL RIGHTS to BLACK POWER
1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANING
Black Church Burnings TODAY: The Journey Continues



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Timeline: 1967-TODAY View Detailed Timeline
TODAY: The Journey Continues
TODAY: The Journey Continues



1967-TODAY: from CRISIS, A SEARCH FOR MEANING
Black Church Burnings



"The attack on African American churches is more than just an act of terrorism against a place of worship...It is an attack on the very soul of the African American community. It is the source of their sense of humanity, their sense of self-worth, their fight for dignity and equality, their leader and trainer in the struggle for freedom and justice." --Ozell Sutton, Chair of the Justice Department's Community Relations Service Church Burning Response Team (1996)


As if to reflect and extend the tide of confusion, bitterness, and hopelessness in black America, a wave of arson destroyed hundreds of black churches; and then corruption and cynicism dispersed the ashes.


Hymnal in remains of burned black church.

Hymnal in remains of burned black church.


In 1996, over 160 black churches burned across the nation. Many of them were in poor, rural areas. This was particularly devastating, as rural black churches also serve as centers of community and provide a wide range of social services. Investigators found little evidence pointing to a conspiracy or organized plot. But as Deval Patrick, U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, told Congress in 1996, "the climate of racial division across the country is extreme," making African American institutions vulnerable to attack.

The church burnings were also a metaphor for the decline in the church's influence and its prestige. In 1970, 80% of blacks went to church. By the end of the nineties, only 40% did - and the vast majority of them were women. The church as a gathering place for family and community seemed to be over, its place in history a monument to earlier struggles.

Nevertheless, President Bill Clinton formed the National Church Arson Task Force (NCATF) to investigate the crimes and protect churches from future incidents. Over four years, the Task Force reported a steady decline in church arson. They investigated 297 incidents in 1996, 208 in 1997, and 114 in 1998. In addition, the percentage of black churches targeted declined from 40% to 25%--a sharp decline, but out of proportion to their representation in society.

Forty years ago, black churches and homes were subjected to a rash of fire bombings at the hands of the Knight Riders, part of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan organized not only against blacks, but against Catholics and Jews. Out of a sense of solidarity, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith raised $250,000 and donated it to the National Baptist Convention in order to rebuild some of those lost churches. A year later, that money was gone, and the head of the once proud National Baptist Convention, Henry Lyons, was indicted on charges of mishandling funds. The minister pleaded guilty to one count of bank fraud, two counts of tax evasion, and one count each of making false statements to a bank officer and the federal government. He was sentence to five-and-a-half years.

Lyons' conviction highlighted how the challenges facing the church have changed since the sixties. Perpetrators in the 1990s are much more difficult to characterize - and their sins are more difficult to hide. Young African Americans in particular sense a hypocrisy in the church that goes beyond theologies of black and white. They seek a higher love, a deeper connection, with the divine.




Did You Know?



Black churches tend to be urban churches, yet the number of blacks living in suburbs has increased 65% since 1990.

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