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.
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.