As Black Churches Burn Across the South, Are White Supremacist Attacks Continuing After Charleston?

July 02, 2015

The FBI is launching an investigation into fires set at seven different African-American churches in seven days. So far none of the blazes have been labeled as hate crimes, but investigators say at least three fires were caused by arson. The fires began on June 21, just days after the Charleston massacre, and have occurred in six different states: Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Ohio. We are joined by Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been tracking these most recent fires.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Bree Newsome singing "Stay Strong: A Love Song to Freedom Fighters." Bree Newsome is the 30-year-old African-American woman who scaled the flagpole on the grounds of the Columbia, South Carolina, Capitol and took down the Confederate flag, saying, "In the name of God, this flag comes down today." She’ll be our guest on Democracy Now! on Monday. Tomorrow, we’ll describe what took place when we were in Columbia just after her arrest, when we saw her being arraigned at the jail. But this is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

We’re talking about the FBI launching an investigation into fires set at seven different African-American churches in seven days. So far, none of the blazes have been labeled as hate crimes, but investigators say at least three fires were caused by arson. The fires began on June 21st, just days after the Charleston massacre, June 17th, and have occurred in six different states: in Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Ohio.

A black church in South Carolina was the latest to catch fire. The blaze on Tuesday at the Mount Zion African Methodist Church in Greeleyville may have been triggered by lightning. Twenty years ago, the church was burned to the ground by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, in Knoxville, Tennessee, a fire at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church was determined to be arson. A reporter at local station WVLT spoke to church elder Marshall Henley.

KELSEY LEYRER: Two different fires were started at College Hill Seventh-Day Adventist last night, one at a side entrance to the church where churchgoers says it appears someone set fire to bales of hay right outside the doors. The church van was also set on fire. And to make matters worse, the church only got the van about six months ago. It was vital to a lot of the church’s community outreach projects. Some of those will now have to be placed on hold because they believe that van is a total loss.

AMY GOODMAN: Another fire on June 23rd at the predominantly black God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia, was also reportedly set on purpose. Then, on June 24th, there was a fire at the Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Gibson County, Tennessee, that was suspected to have been caused by lightning. The same day, there was a three-alarm fire at Briar Creek Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Local station WBTV spoke to the church’s pastor, Mannix Kinsey.

REV. MANNIX KINSEY: When I got here, I was even amazed to see that the flames were so high. And, you know, of course, I’m thinking, "Oh, my goodness, this church is going to be destroyed."

DEDRICK RUSSELL: The estimated damage is more than $250,000. The pastor of three years is grateful brick and mortar was all that was ruined.

REV. MANNIX KINSEY: A life was not lost. You know that the buildings can be repaired, they can be built over.

DEDRICK RUSSELL: While the pastor deals with this fire, he also has to deal with the fact this may be a hate crime.

REV. MANNIX KINSEY: We’re still talking about this same issue, and this is 2015. And so, we all have to consider what else do we need to do, you know, to actually be able to work together.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, on June 26, there was another fire at a Glover [Grove] Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina, that was first burned down 20 years ago by the KKK, and one at the Greater Miracle Temple Apostolic Holiness Church in Tallahassee, Florida, that was caused by a tree limb that fell and started an electrical fire. Another fire was in Ohio, where the College Heights Baptist Church burned down Saturday night.

On Wednesday, NAACP President Cornell William Brooks issued a statement in response to the fires. He referred to the Charleston massacre that preceded them, writing, quote, "When nine students of scripture lose their lives in a house of worship, we cannot to turn a blind eye to any incident. As we wait for authorities to conduct their investigations, the NAACP and our state conferences across the country will remain vigilant and work with local churches and local law enforcement to ensure that all are taking the necessary precautions to ensure the safety of every parishioner."

All of this comes as the KKK has announced a rally for later this month at the South Carolina state House in support of the Confederate flag. There are reports South Carolina legislators now have enough votes to push through the flag’s removal.

For more, we go to Montgomery, Alabama, where we’re joined by Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been tracking these most recent fires.

Richard, welcome back to Democracy Now!

RICHARD COHEN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of what’s happening throughout the South now.

RICHARD COHEN: Well, look, when it comes to race, the country is on edge, especially the black community. You know, we have a background of the killing of unarmed black men at the hands of the police. You add to this the Charleston massacre and now this string of fires at black churches. You know, it’s just a very combustible combination. You know, it’s certainly true that perhaps most of these fires are not arsons, and maybe none of the arsons are hate-motivated. But still, you can understand, with emotions so raw, you know, why people react this way. And certainly, you can’t dismiss the possibility that at least some of these fires have been set in retaliation for the taking down of the Confederate flags. There’s a lot of anger in the white nationalist community over what’s been happening lately.

AMY GOODMAN: So, take the one in Greeleyville, the church burning down, the most recent one in Greeleyville, South Carolina. Governor Haley, Nikki Haley, came out immediately and said it was clearly lightning. She said something like, "We saw the lightning hit the top of the church." But then people within the investigation said, "How does she know this?" This was reported on a TV station close to those who were investigating. But that church does have a history. Talk about what happened 20 years ago in Greeleyville.

RICHARD COHEN: Well, you know, there was a group called the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan that was involved in burning the Greeleyville church, as well as the Macedonia Baptist Church in Clarendon, South Carolina. We actually had the privilege at the Southern Poverty Law Center of representing the Macedonia Baptist Church and got a multimillion-dollar verdict against the Klan for the burning of that church. It put the Klan, you know, kind of out of business. So, you know, you have this kind of history, and I guess Governor Haley is trying to tamp down emotions and maybe spoke too quickly. And I guess it’s—it’s important to realize that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions in either direction too fast.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to be done right now, Richard Cohen?

RICHARD COHEN: Well, look, all of these fires have to be investigated thoroughly. And, you know, I think the forensic experts are very, very good at that. And then I think that we have to continue to look at the racial issues that divide us. You know, we’re at an interesting point in our history, an interesting point in time, when suddenly people, especially in the white community, I think, are suddenly more aware of the divisive nature of some of the symbols, like the Confederate flag, like Confederate holidays, and, I think, are more willing to address not just those symbols, but some of the substance that continues to keep our country separate and unequal.

AMY GOODMAN: Calling for congressional hearings into domestic terrorism?

RICHARD COHEN: Yes. We have called for those hearings before both the Senate and the House, the committees that look at the Department of Homeland Security. You know, since 9/11, we’ve—you know, our resources in the domestic terrorism fight have skewed perhaps too heavily towards jihadi terrorism, at the expense of the forms of domestic terrorism that we saw exhibited in the Charleston massacre. You know, what we think is, we should allocate our resources in accordance with the nature of the threat. 9/11 will always be the Pearl Harbor of our time, but that doesn’t mean all the resources should go in that direction.

AMY GOODMAN: In Alabama, the governor, unlike Governor Haley in South Carolina, simply, without talking about it beforehand, took down the flags on the state Capitol, the Confederate flag. Can you talk about the significance of this? You’re in Montgomery.


AMY GOODMAN: And also, he’s supposed to be making another announcement today.

RICHARD COHEN: I’m not sure what his announcement is today, Amy, but I can tell you, we were incredibly happy and applauded the governor for what he did. It was very, very forward-looking. And I think it was really quite an important thing, and probably a difficult thing for him to do politically. Another thing that I want to applaud the governor for is, you know, he disagreed with the Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision, but he immediately came out and said, you know, "It’s the law of the land, and we should follow it." And that’s not the case with all politicians in Alabama. The chief justice of Alabama, Roy Moore, is still on his soapbox ranting and raving against the same-sex marriage ruling. So I think, you know, Governor Bentley should be applauded for helping the state look forward rather than backward.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it has been very much kept under wraps, what he’s going to announce today, but it might relate to that. Has anti-LGBT violence increased since the same-sex marriage ruling of the Supreme Court?

RICHARD COHEN: Well, I don’t know if we’ve seen any uptick since the same-sex marriage ruling. What we have seen, though, is an apparent uptick in the recent years, because as more—you know, more people in the LGBTQ community feel comfortable coming out, you know, they’re more likely to be targeted, because it’s more—they’re more open. You know, in terms of sheer numbers, hate crimes against black people are the most common. On the other hand, from a percentage standpoint, the LGBT community is the most likely to be victimized by hate crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Cohen, I want to thank you for being with us, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaking to us from Montgomery, Alabama. Tune in tomorrow for our Independence Day special, as James Earl Jones reads Frederick Douglass’s 1852 address: "What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?"

FREDERICK DOUGLASS: [read by James Earl Jones] What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ll hear the whole speech on tomorrow’s broadcast, as well as our remembrance of the late, great folksinger Pete Seeger.

PETE SEEGER: We shall overcome.
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome some day.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s tomorrow on Democracy Now! Tune in as we remember Pete Seeger and also go down to Columbia, South Carolina, to describe those moments when Bree Newsome took down the flag. I’ll be speaking tonight at 7:30 in Chicago. Check our website at

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