Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, central to Greenville, Mississippi’s predominantly African-American community, was set on fire on Tuesday night in what authorities are investigating as a hate crime. The blaze took nearly an hour to contain, but there were no reported injuries. The church was empty at the time of the fire. Authorities also found the words “Vote Trump” spray painted along the church’s side.
“I see this as an attack on the black church and the black community,” Mayor Errick Simmons said in a press conference following the fire, calling the incident a “direct assault on people’s right to freely worship.”
The Jackson field office for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives, will assist with the hate crime investigation, which is standard practice after church fires. Greenville Police Chief Delando Wilson said investigators are interviewing possible witnesses but “don’t have any suspects at this time.” They are, however, talking to a person of interest.
Online, church supporters raised more than the $10,000 goal set in a GoFund Me drive to help the 200-person congregation rebuild. When describing the fundraiser, organizer J. Blair Reeves Jr., cited the historic implications of racially motivated attacks on black churches.
“The animus of this election cycle combined with the potent racial history of burning black churches as a political symbol makes this event something we must not ignore,” he said.
Simmons echoed the importance of the church to the African-American community in his press conference after speaking with members of Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, who he called “fearful and intimidated.”
“Quite frankly, [they] were saddened and crying,” he said. “That should not happen in 2016. It happened in the ’50s. It happened in the ’60s. But it should not happen in 2016.”
This is so heartbreaking. Not so much for the message on the building, but this is a church that's been around for so long in the community. pic.twitter.com/h8hJqoOgpH
— Angie Quezada (@wnctangieq) November 2, 2016
This country has a long history of burning black churches, Simmons said. Long before African-American men were first granted the right to vote in 1870, the black church served as a central organizing force for political activity, from protests to marches, and voter registration drives. As a result, black churches have often been targeted to suppress black participation in the political process.
One of the most notable attacks is the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The attack killed four young girls and became a prominent spark in protests, leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and, later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
According to The Atlantic, attacks on black churches “aren’t a matter of remote history.”
As recently as the 1990s, a wave of fire-bombings hit black churches.Congressional hearings were held in 1996 at the end of a two-year period when such arson spiked across the southeast. In South Carolina alone, black churches that suffered probable arson attacks included Mt. Zion AME Church in Williamsburg, Macedonia Baptist Church in Manning, Saint Paul Baptist Church in Lexington, Rosemary Baptist Church in Barnwell, St. John Baptist Church in Dixiana, Effington Baptist Church, Mount Olivet Baptist Church, and Allen’s Chapel.
That spike in attacks prompted a House Judiciary Committee report from 1996 which found that most church arsons occurred at black churches in the South. As a result, President Bill Clinton signed the Church Arson Prevention Act and established a National Church Arson Task Force.
More recently, summer 2015 saw a spike in fires at black churches, including in Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Missouri. According to the Pew Research Center, half of all church fires in the last 20 years have been the result of arson and are far more common than most other kind of structures.
On Tuesday, Simmons reiterated his city’s intent to be “deliberate in investigating” this latest church fire incident.
“We will not rest until the culprit is found and fully prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.