CHARLESTON, S.C. — Five fires at predominately African-American churches in several states are in the spotlight.
News that federal investigators are investigating the fires — for signs of arson or hate crimes — has been making waves on social media, where the question is posed with a hashtag: #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches.
The mass murder of nine people at the Emanuel AME in Charleston, South Carolina — a house of worship specifically targeted because it is a black church — was a stark reminder that no building is safe from racist, hateful attacks.
Dylann Roof, the self-confessed racist gunman, posted a manifesto on white supremacy that stated that Emanuel AME was targeted because it is a “historic African-American church.”
With the news of five fires in the South at predominately black churches, comes that question: Who is behind these fires?
Investigators at the FBI and ATF, as well as local officials, say the answer isn’t simple.
In at least one of the church fires, arson has been ruled out.
Investigators have concluded that the fires were set intentionally at two churches, but that hate crimes are not suspected.
The causes of the remaining two churches are still under investigation.
“We are looking at all of them along with ATF,” a federal law enforcement official reported. “No reason at this point to link them, but we are continuing to investigate.”
Following the massacre in Charleston, and the renewed controversy over the Confederate battle flag, it’s conceivable that white supremacists might carry out attacks, said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups.
“There’s no apparent connection, nothing to say they are connected,” Potok said. “It’s speculation at this point.”
The most recent hate crime attacks on religious institutions have been on Jewish synagogues and Islamic mosques, not black Christian churches, he said.
Still, there is a history of racist attacks on black churches that cannot be ignored or forgotten.
The September 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham by the Ku Klux Klan is something most U.S. students learn about in history class. But that was just one of hundreds of attacks.
“There were scores and scores and scores of arson and other attacks on black churches during the civil rights era,” Potok said.
One of the recent fires struck the College Hill Seventh Day Adventist church in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“When I look at this I see, I think of an intention to try to destroy this entire church,” the Rev. Cleveland Hobdy III, told WATE. “It makes it sad. It’s sad either way that someone would put their mind to try to damage a church that’s trying to help people.”
After Charleston, there seems to be a renewed awareness of the how odious hate crimes are, and of the history of attacks on black churches. Here is the latest reporting on the investigations into the fires:
Briar Creek Road Church in Charlotte, North Carolina
According to the Charlotte Fire Department, the fire at Briar Creek Road Church was set intentionally.
Investigators have not found anything pointing to a hate crime, but is has not been ruled out, Fire Department spokeswoman Cynthia Robbins Shah-Khan said.
The FBI said it has opened a preliminary investigation into the arson, but that the agency is not investigating it as a hate crime.
The fire burned a building that housed classrooms, but did not affect the church’s main sanctuary, Shah-Khan said.
The church is home to an African-American congregation, but is shared with other groups, including a Nepalese congregation.
College Hill Seventh Day Adventist in Knoxville, Tennessee
This is a case of arson, Knoxville Fire Department spokesman DJ Corcoran said.
The fire was definitely set on purpose, he said, but investigators think it looks more like vandalism.
“Nothing that indicated that it was a hate crime,” Corcoran said.
He declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing investigation, but said that evidence consistent with a hate crime was lacking.
A van belonging to the church was burned in the parking lot, and bales of straw were placed by the church’s doors and set on fire, he said. Smoke seeped into the church and set off the fire alarms.
Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina
The least amount of information is available for this fire.
In short, investigators say they don’t know what caused the fire.
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said in a statement that, “Based upon the scene examination and the evidence collected, agents were unable to determine an exact origin or fire cause.”
“As a result, agents were unable to eliminate all accidental ignition sources,” the statement said. “Investigators observed no element of criminal intent. The cause of the fire was best classified as undetermined.”
God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia
Investigators say they have not confirmed arson in this fire.
It is not believed to be a hate crime, investigators said.
The church was not being used, as the 50-member congregation had moved 30 miles south to Danville about a year ago, ATF spokesman Nero Priester said.
The ATF has finished the first phase of its investigation, and is calling on several people to interview regarding the fire, Priester said.
The preliminary investigation does not point to a hate crime, he said.
The church had been the site of recent break-ins, where property like air-conditioners and sound systems were stolen, officials said.
Greater Miracle Apostolic Church in Tallahassee, Florida
The fire at Greater Miracle Apostolic Church was likely caused when a tree limb fell on power lines, exposing electrical wires, fire officials said.