#WhoIsBurningBlackChurches? Cultural erasure in America

The black church has been a nexus of power and hope for centuries. Urban congregations were the basis of the Civil Rights Movement; in 1963 in Birmingham, no matter how violent and chaotic it got, the 16th Street Baptist Church was home base where nonviolent protestors marched, were scattered and arrested, and came back to again and again. Shortly after the Campaign, the whole church was dynamited by KKK members, killing four girls. The symbol of black resistance was destroyed, part of a campaign of white supremacist terror.

The rubble of 16th Street Baptist. September, 1963
The rubble of 16th Street Baptist. September, 1963

Not only was the sanctuary of the church desecrated by the massacre of nine people in Charleston, this open wound has been salted by a string of church fires. As of writing, the number of fires is eight, with three confirmed arsons and four without a cause yet.

The lack of interest by many media outlets in the story spawned the hashtag #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches. The answer is both “we have no idea” and “we have a very good idea”. Who specifically? Investigations are ongoing. Who generally? White domestic terrorists, the sort that have dominated the history of terrorism in America. While Islamic extremism has been the dominant focus in America for the past two decades, outside of September 11th, 2001, domestic terrorism by racist and “patriot” extremists has always been a more relevant threat- since 9/11 almost twice as many people in the US have died from right-wing attacks than by Islamic radicals. The 1990s had the Oklahoma City Bombing, which was the deadliest action before 9/11. Going back far into the past, America was defined by lynch mobs, church bombings, slave patrols, etc. Beware media stories that call this some kind of anomaly. Given the past, and American society’s lack of interest in confronting systemic racism, we should not be surprised that black institutions are defiled and destroyed.

The question “who is burning black churches?” reveals that the War on Terror has never directed resources into confronting the dark heart of domestic terror. The Obama administration and Congress seems to be more interested in bombing peasants in Yemen than in churches being destroyed in several Southern states. No big effort has emerged to systematically protect churches and the black communities that they reside in. As with many social problems, the oppressed groups are told to deal with it on their own.

At the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly last week, Dr. Cornel West stated that if all this violence was matched in the way that white establishments do, there would be no peace. Violence against black America happens so often that it would be a continuous civil war. What makes church burnings like this series strange is that few, if any comparable actions are taken against white-led churches or other institutions. When property is destroyed in racial conflict, like the CVS in Baltimore, there is a media obsession with it. Several historic churches, with great cultural and social importance, get nowhere near the same coverage- simply because the group that committed the crime and group who suffered it were different than they were in Baltimore.

I was born in 1990, about a full generation after the end of the capitalized Civil Rights Movement. Church attacks were taught to me as historical, emblematic of a hostile, racist society that no longer exists. But there is no separate, post-racial era. This is just a modified version of Jim Crow. Same inequality, same terrorism.

Franklin McCain has died- one of the Greensboro Four

Credit: Jack Moebes/Greensboro News & Record

The Greensboro lunch counter sit-in is a seminal points in the history of the American Civil Rights Movement- on par with the Little Rock Nine, the Birmingham campaign, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. One the four college students who dared to walk into a whites-only lunch counter on February 1st, 1960 has died-  Franklin McCain.

Reflecting decades after the event, he remarked “If I were lucky, I would go to jail for a long, long time. If I were not quite so lucky…I would come back to my campus … in a pine box.” However the campaign was stunningly successful, kicking off a huge wave of sit-ins all over the South. Five months after they sat down at Woolworth’s, it served its first black customers.

This incident is now studied in sociology classes as an example of the power of social solidarity. Given all the violence against blacks for centuries in the South, to many people it would seem insane to try to stand up to white segregation. But when people have incredible trust in themselves and with each other, they can do extraordinary things.

History as it is taught, however, tends to view these people as spontaneously courageous. In fact, an important role of civil rights organizations like CORE and the SCLC was to train people to keep on point and on message (here is a trainer from the era running over the system taught). If dogs and firehoses had been unleashed on unprepared marchers in 1963, it would have been an ugly riot. The key was to expose the brutality of the opposition through disciplined nonviolence.

As the icons of the Civil Rights Movement pass on- those that were able to get through the 1960s alive- it is more and more important for newer generations to keep the spirit alive. Because the fight isn’t over, and its goals are still unmet.