Spring 1999, Vol. 2, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
A Civil Religious Affair

Covering the Bible Belt I: Montgomery Wars:  Religion and Alabama Politics

Covering the Bible Belt II:  A Freethinker's Testimony

Covering the Bible Belt III:  Liaisons Religieuses

God in the Press Box

Excommunication in Rochester

Religion on the Small Screen

Epic Respectability

No National Conspiracy

by Katie Day

When the federal government’s Church Arson Task Force issued its second report last October, the world scarcely took notice. Just six newspapers picked up the AP story reporting that black churches were targeted in 225 of the 670 suspicious fires, bombings, or attempted bombings of churches that the task force had tracked since January 1995. In December, when 70 representatives of burned black churches gathered in Atlanta to meet with officials from the task force, church agencies, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, only the Atlanta Journal and Constitution ran a story-on page two of the local news section.

Contrast this to the summer of 1996, when dramatic images of burning churches dominated the news media. Then, each report of a black church victimized by arson ratcheted up public outrage and fear of conspiracy. Financial contributions flowed to organizations involved in rebuilding efforts from individuals, religious groups, foundations, and labor unions. In one two-month period in 1996, the National Council of Churches alone received $7.7 million in financial and in-kind donations.

More volunteers offered to help in the rebuilding effort than could be accommodated by even such veteran groups as Habitat for Humanity. President Clinton and Vice President Gore and their families symbolically joined in rebuilding a church in Tennessee-following on the heels of the National Summit on Volunteerism in Philadelphia.

Congress heard painful testimony from African American ministers whose churches had been torched, and passed the Church Arson Prevention Act, which applied significant federal resources to the problem. The Church Arson Task Force was created as a collaborative effort of the Justice Department, the FBI, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to monitor, investigate, and prosecute church burning cases. Federal funds were designated to provide guaranteed loans to victimized churches, many of which were underinsured or without insurance altogether. National church groups as well as the federal government developed strategies for arson prevention and community building.

In sum, for one shining moment religious groups, the government, and the news media worked together to bring the burning of churches into the bright light of the public forum and to develop strategic responses for rebuilding, prevention, and healing. But the light soon dimmed.

In mid-1996 the media began a self-critique of coverage of the story. First, conservative author and journalist Michael Fumento argued in a July 8 Wall Street Journal op-ed that the image of an ominous new trend of racially motivated arson had been a "myth...probably a deliberate hoax" perpetrated by left-wing activists. Fumento also raised the possibility that the media had puffed up the nonstory by encouraging copycat crimes. This analysis was echoed the following week by Michael Kelly in the New Yorker.

Then, in October, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) published a piece by Texas-based free-lancer Joe Holley arguing that the story of the burned churches had been falsely premised on the specter of a nationally organized conspiracy. By then it had become apparent that not all of the churches burned were African-American or targeted by known hate groups. Offering anecdotal evidence of several solved cases and limited research by the Associated Press, Holley concluded that since evidence of a well-organized racist conspiracy was lacking, journalists ought to turn their coverage to the presumably dysfunctional communities in which the burnings occurred. Church burning was, finally, just local news.

USA Today-a publication not normally identified as a leader in investigative reporting-had provided the earliest and most comprehensive coverage. In 1996, up to the time that Holley’s article appeared, the paper ran 60 stories on the subject (11 on page one), including a four-page report in June that presented findings from more than 500 interviews. Even though the newspaper did not find a national conspiracy at work, there was enough evidence of racial hatred behind many of the arsons to warrant significant concern. But in the wake of the CJR article USA Today’s coverage fell off dramatically, with only five articles in all of 1997 and one in 1998. The article effectively put the kibosh on national coverage of church burnings; after its appearance, the story was reframed and journalistic resources withdrawn.

In its first report, released in June 1997, the National Church Arson Task Force found that since the beginning of 1995, 429 houses of worship had been destroyed by arson or bombing. African-American churches were more than twice as likely to be destroyed as others. Accounting for 18 percent of all religious congregations in the United States, black congregations were the object of 37.8 percent of the arsons nationwide-and 50 percent of those occurring in the South. Of all houses of worship victimized in the nation during that time period, nearly one-third were black churches in the South.

The Task Force found no evidence of a centrally organized conspiracy but plenty that racial hatred had been at work. Fully two-thirds of those arrested in the burnings and bombings of black churches were white. The Justice Department had been able to demonstrate racial motives in a number of cases and successfully won criminal civil rights convictions in three-fifths of the cases in five Southern states and Nevada.

The Task Force’s second report was cause for both hope and discouragement. Thanks to aggressive investigation and prosecution, preventive strategies, community development programs, and rebuilding efforts, the number of church burnings has decreased. It could even be that the absence of the story in the news has prevented some copycat crimes.

Not that the burnings have stopped. From January 1997, through the beginning of September 1998, there were 322 arsons of houses of worship, of which one-quarter involved black congregations-still disproportionately high. Overall, the state has been able to prove racist intent in 15 of the 33 convictions in connection with the arson of 33 African-American churches in Alabama, Louisiana, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tenn-essee, and Texas. The Congress of National Black Churches has identified 11 clusters of arsons and bombings that appear to be related geographically and by timing and/or tactics.

In the past three years, some 112 churches have been rebuilt, largely because of grants and loans from religious groups and the groundswell of volunteers from around the country. But hundreds more have not. Because the journalism that fueled the compassionate giving of financial and human resources in 1996 is all but gone, contributions that once flowed now trickle.

The news media cannot be blamed for burning churches by their coverage or destroying public compassion by their lack of it. Both the burnings and the rebuilding efforts continue today with very little attention from the media. But perhaps it is time for another round of self-examination.

Had journalists stuck with the story longer, they would have seen plain old racial hatred working in too many of the cases. The numbers are a dry portrayal of what the human victims themselves experienced: spray-painted swastikas and racist epithets still visible in the charred remains of sacred places, emblems of years of harassment and intimidation. Parishioners knew in their bones that the smoldering ashes could not be explained simply in terms of youthful recklessness, insurance fraud, disgruntled members, alcohol abuse, or troubled communities. There might not be a map with little flags in some Klan Klavern Hall somewhere, but there was a new surge in an old evil trend.

For lack of a centrally organized conspiracy, the mobilization of much-needed resources has been made much more difficult. Faith communities already coping with the trauma of being the victims of hate crimes are now also having to deal with abandonment. And the national conscience, pricked by the troubling images of churches in flames, is robbed of the opportunity to wrestle with the intransigent problem ofracism.