From the Worldwide Faith News archives

House hearing on black church burnings

Date 22 May 1996 15:58:29

"UNITED METHODIST DAILY NEWS" by SUSAN PEEK on Aug. 11, 1991 at 13:58 Eastern,

Note 2971 by UMNS on May 22, 1996 at 16:53 Eastern (5553 characters).

SEARCH:   firebombing, burning black churches, Lowery, NCC,
          testimony, Judiciary Committee, FBI, ATF

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Produced by United Methodist News Service, official news agency of
the United Methodist Church, with offices in Nashville, Tenn., New
York, and Washington.

CONTACT:  Joretta Purdue                    257(10-21-31-71){2971}
          Washington, D.C.  (202) 546-8722            May 22, 1996

Lowery, NCC express concerns related
to investigations of black church burnings

     WASHINGTON (UMNS) -- The Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of
the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a retired United
Methodist clergyman, was among people here May 21 who criticized
law enforcement efforts to halt the burning of churches throughout
the South.
     In testimony before the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House
of Representatives, Lowery termed the response to the church
burnings as "feeble."
     His comments and that of other religious leaders followed
testimony by officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) and Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF).
The two federal agencies have more than 200 agents working with
local law enforcement agencies to investigate these crimes, they
     Deval L. Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil
rights, told the committee that evidence of a regional or national
conspiracy is lacking, but that the number of hate crimes
nationwide is growing. 
     "We are witnessing a serious and frightening assault on
African-Americans in this country. We must hold accountable the
racist groups that fan the flames of intolerance," Lowery said.
     He commented, "African Americans are concerned that many law
enforcement agencies include personnel who are also members of
racist groups."
     Although the number of churches attacked varied according to
when the count began and what was included, written testimony from
the National Council of Churches (NCC) president and its general
secretary report that 57 black and interracial churches have been
bombed, burned or vandalized since January 1990. Twenty-five of
these acts occurred in 1996.
     NCC officials had requested the opportunity to present oral
testimony at the hearings. When denied, they submitted written
     The NCC research found "striking similarities in these
incidents," according to the letter signed by United Methodist
Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, NCC president, and the Rev. Joan Brown
Campbell, NCC general secretary. 
     Their list includes use of molotov cocktails and other
incendiary devices, spray painting racist graffiti, targeting
churches with a history of strong advocacy for African-American
rights, and racist notes and letters directed to the pastors.
     Talbert and Campbell also said that five churches were
attacked on or near Martin Luther King Day in January 1995 and
again in 1996.
     The NCC testimony contained harsh criticism of the
investigations by law enforcement officials. It alleged that
although 30 people had been charged so far, more have not been
apprehended "because investigations, to date, have focused in
large measure on the pastors and members of the burned churches
rather than on the violent history of ... racist groups."
     Talbert and Campbell also reported that racial motivation is
widely denied by law enforcement officials as the initiating
factor in the crimes.
     "The NCC has been provided with testimony from some of the
affected pastors that racial epithets scrawled onto the remaining
facades of their churches were immediately painted over by law
enforcement officials without the consent of the church," the
document said.
     Some pastors have been asked to take polygraph tests, church
records demanded, members interrogated to the point of tears, the
NCC reports. Arson for insurance money has been insinuated by
officials, although most of the churches have been uninsured or
underinsured, the NCC statement said.
     "Without exception, the victims of these hate crimes said
they felt intimidated by the very forces they had hoped would
provide them with protection and would alleviate their anxieties,"
Talbert and Campbell said.
     They also accuse law enforcement agencies of ignoring death
threats received by the pastors and other church members, and of
failure to follow up on leads provided by the pastors.
     Both NCC officials and Lowery expressed apprehension that
although no one has been hurt in these attacks, perpetrators
emboldened by not being called to account may attempt a
firebombing during services.
     "These attacks stiffen our resistance to oppression and
render firm our resolve in the pursuit of justice and equity," he
     Lowery called for a massive effort by the FBI and other law
enforcement agencies to bring the criminals to justice. He urged
support for the ministers, congregations and communities that have
experienced these "acts of terrorism" and urged Congress to engage
in a positive campaign to achieve racial justice and end violence.
     He also had some words for the churches in regard to monetary
rewards for information leading to the culprits. "We believe,"
Lowery said, "the religious community could better serve the
common good by engaging in joint efforts to eliminate the climate
of hostility that encourages acts of hostility."
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