Church fires

An AME church burned to the ground last night in Greeleyville, South Carolina. It was burned down once before, twenty years ago. An anonymous fed told reporters the preliminary indications are not arson.

The predominantly African American congregation is more than 100 years old. Their church building had previously been burned to the ground in June 1995, almost exactly 20 years before Tuesday’s blaze.

Two young white men with ties to the Ku Klux Klan were arrested in connection with the fire, according to documents from House Judiciary Committee hearings held in 1996. The men were members of the KKK during the time of the burnings, but since renounced their membership, their lawyer said.

Arrested but not tried or convicted? The Post doesn’t say.

Many onlookers on social media speculated that it had been intentionally set, the latest in a number of arson cases at black churches that have broken out since nine people were slain in a hate-fueled shooting at Emanuel AME in Charleston last month.

Pete Mohlin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in North Charleston, told the Post and Courier that the Greeleyville area saw a great deal of lightning between 6:30 and 7 p.m. But, he added, there is no way of knowing whether lightning started the fire.

Jim Lippard pointed out on Facebook that there are a lot of churches in this country, so there are bound to be a lot of fires, and we need comparative numbers.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is also on the scene. The agency is leading investigations of five other fires that have struck Southern predominantly black churches in recent weeks. So far, three of the incidents have been identified as arson or potential arson, but none are confirmed to be hate crimes.

Church fires are not all that uncommon, according to a 2013 report from the National Fire Protection Association, the trade association that develops fire codes. The group found an average of 1,780 fires per year at churches, mosques, temples and other religious buildings between 2007 and 2011, of which 16 percent were intentionally set. It does not identify how many of the blazes turned out to be hate crimes.

On the other hand none of the intentional ones were messages of friendship, I think we can all agree.

Churches have long been symbols of freedom and sites of resistance in the African American community. Much of the political organizing and activism of the civil rights movement took place in church sanctuaries and involved religious leaders.

In his eulogy at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, pastor at Emanuel AME who was slain in the shooting, last Friday, President Obama called the black church, “Our beating heart. The place where our dignity as a people is inviolate.”

But their political and cultural power has also made these congregations targets in high-profile attacks like the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and in hundreds more smaller and less widely-covered incidents.

Next time send a letter.


  1. P. Jordan Howell says

    Racism you say? What racism? Nah, these church burnings are just anti-Christian sentiment run amok in America.

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    On the other hand none of the intentional ones were messages of friendship, I think we can all agree.

    Given that banks are foreclosing on churches in record numbers and a great many churches are in financial straits, it is entirely possible that someone within the church torched it for the insurance money, just like with other businesses.

    It may have been an inside job or done for financial purposes – the possibility that it was done deliberately by someone TO the congregation (and thus not a “message of friendship”) is not the only possibility here.

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