Church burns overnight in S.C.: No. 7 since ‘Mother’ Emanuel massacre

Since the June 17 mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, the FBI is investigating a number of suspicious fires at black churches across the South. All these fires occurred in the past 10 days, though not all are suspected arsons.

1. June 21: College Hill Seventh Day Adventist in Knoxville, Tenn.

2. June 23: God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon.

3. June 23: Fruitland Presbyterian Church, in Gibson County, Tenn

4. June 24: Briar Creek Road Baptist Church in Charlotte.

5. June 26: Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, S.C.

6. June 26: Greater Miracle Temple Apostolic Holiness Church in Tallahassee.

7. June 30: Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, S.C.

Twenty years ago, two members of the Ku Klux Klan, upset about challenges to the Confederate Flag, burned down Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in the tiny town of Greeleyville, S.C.

They rebuilt, even having then-President Bill Clinton visit in 1996 for the re-dedication service.

Late Tuesday, Mount Zion burned again.

Amid early speculation that the fire might have been caused by a lightning strike, federal authorities are still investigating the possibility of arson or a hate crime. And people are on edge.

When Mount Zion went up in flames, it was the seventh Southern black church that has burned since nine people were gunned down on June 17 at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, an hour’s drive from Greeleyville.

“If you on the receiving end, you feel terrorized,” said Janice Mathis, an attorney and the national vice president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. “To say that you will burn down a church, because of the color of the congregation or the religion is terrible. I do think the Christian church will respond accordingly and rebuild.”

Lillie Mae Powell, the pastor of God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon could hardly bring herself to the phone on Tuesday after yet another call came in about the upcoming Sunday service.

A week has passed since someone burned the tiny African-American church. The FBI is looking into the fire, but Macon police say they have little evidence suggesting this was a hate crime.

When a reporter called on Tuesday, Powell, in her 90s, handed the phone to her oldest great-grandson.

“This is a pretty trying time for us,” Brandon Reeves said, apologizing. “Our church is gone. We had funerals there. The pews where people used to sit have burned. It has all been taken from us. We are the victims of a hate crime.”

But the loss could be deeper and wider.

Since June 17, the night of 21-year-old Dylann Roof’s carnage at “Mother” Emanuel AME Church — and in the wake of a raging national debate over the Confederate flag — federal authorities say that at least seven Southern black churches have burned. Arson is being investigated in at least three of them, while some might have been electrical or weather-related.

“The one thing that makes the fires suspicious is that they occurred in a tight bunch after the Confederate flag debate,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups and their crimes. “No one has found evidence of hate crimes, or that they were racially motivated. But we just don’t know. The idea is very unlikely.”

The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been careful about linking the fires together or to Charleston — or to rule them hates crimes. In an email, J. Britt Johnson, special agent-in-charge of the FBI Atlanta Field Office, said with the Macon fire is still being investigated.

“With regard to speculation that this fire could be looked at as a hate crime, again no such ruling has yet been made,” Johnson said, adding that the FBI often opens a preliminary inquiry after a church fire.

“A preliminary inquiry doesn’t suggest that a hate crime has occurred, but rather ensures that it is getting additional scrutiny for hate crime potential,” Johnson said.

Macon-Bibb County public information officer Chris Floore said the county is still conducting an arson investigation: “But it does not appear to be a hate crime at this time. It doesn’t seem like it was set with malicious intent.”

Floore said he understood the irony of saying that an arson was not “malicious” but added that there were no outward signs — like messages or graffiti — that a hate group started the fire.

Mathis said she is confident that federal authorities will investigate the fires thoroughly but added: “I don’t think it is a coincidence that that you have five churches burned in the South in a week.”

Aside from Georgia, churches have burned in Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida and South Carolina.

“There is a still a small segment of our society that refuses to accept racial reconciliation and peaceful co-existence,” Mathis said. “These very well could be people sympathetic to the goals of white supremacy and Roof.”

For as long as black Americans have been able to have their own churches, the fear of them being attacked or burned has been significant.

Ironically, the June 17 attack on Emanuel was the worst at the church, but not the first. In 1822, the original structure was burned down by white supremacists after one of the church’s founders, Denmark Vesey, was executed for planning a slave revolt.

The most significant attack happened in 1963 when four girls in Sunday School were killed when a bomb ripped through the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

In the mid-90s, amid a spike in church fires —including the one at Mount Zion AME — President Bill Clinton set up a church-arson investigative task force. Between 1995 and 1999, the National Church Arson Task Force opened more than 800 investigations into arsons and bombings of churches and houses of worship. The task force was strengthened by a 1996 congressional vote to increase sentences for arsonists who targeted religious organizations, particularly based on race or ethnicity. In 1996, Clinton attended the first service after Mount Zion AME was re-built.

For the members of God’s Power Church of Christ, the mood now is survival and confusion. The church is in the Unionville section of West Macon, in what Reeves calls a “bad area.”

“We have had problems there,” Reeves said. “We have had some burglaries. People breaking in. Using our parking lot and leaving beer bottles. So anything is a possibility and we are not ruling anything out. This could have been white supremacists or the people running the liquor house across the street.”

When firefighters arrived at the church they had to enter through the sides because the front doors had been wired shut.

Reeves said the sanctuary and roof of the church that his great-grandmother built were destroyed. There are about 30 members of God’s Power Church of Christ.

“This Sunday, we will have church in the parking lot,” Reeves said. “We are not gonna let the devil stop us.”