From the Worldwide Faith News archives


Date 20 May 1996 18:32:39

National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.
Contact: Carol J. Fouke, NCC, 212-870-2252

Written Testimony Submitted By:
Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, President
The Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, General Secretary

Testimony for Committee on the Judiciary
U.S. House of Representatives
Concerning Firebombing and Other Attacks on Churches

May 21, 1996

Mr. Chairman,
Members of the Committee:

On behalf of the National Council of the Churches of
Christ in the U.S.A., we welcome this opportunity to
testify on one of this country's most pressing
social and moral crises -- the epidemic of burnings,
firebombings and other acts of racist violence
directed at churches, most of them African American
churches, in several states of our nation.

The National Council of the Churches of Christ in
the U.S.A. -- often referred to as the National
Council of Churches (NCC) -- is the pre-eminent
expression in the United States of the movement for
Christian unity.  Its 33 Protestant and Orthodox
member communions, to which 52 million people
belong, work together and with other church bodies
to bring a wide sense of Christian community and to
deepen the experience of unity.  While we do not
purport to speak for all members of the communions
constituent to the National Council of Churches, we
do speak for our policy making body, the General
Assembly, whose 270 members are selected by those
communions in numbers proportionate to their size.
Founded in 1950 and headquartered in New York City,
the National Council of Churches has spoken and
acted consistently and forcefully for racial justice
and civil rights and against racism since its

Currently the National Council of Churches is
leading a major effort to investigate the attacks on
Black churches, provide practical and spiritual
support to the victimized ministers and
congregations, stop the attacks, bring the
perpetrators to justice, make the general public
aware of this wave of hate crimes and raise funds
for rebuilding the churches, most of them under-
insured and many not insured at all.  Partners with
us in this effort are the Center for Democratic
Renewal, Atlanta, Ga. (formerly the National Anti-
Klan Network), which has been monitoring white
supremacist movements since 1979 and which since
late last year systematically has been investigating
the racist attacks on churches, and the Center for
Constitutional Rights, New York City, which
successfully has brought civil suits against the Ku
Klux Klan and is preparing to bring legal action
against perpetrators of the church attacks.

Since March 5, 1996, NCC teams have visited
destroyed and damaged churches in Tennessee,
Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana, and we
are planning visits to South Carolina, Arkansas,
Georgia and other states next week and in June.  On
all these visits, we go to the sites of churches
that have been destroyed or damaged and gather
first-hand testimony from pastors, deacons and other
members of these churches.

Our coalition's research has documented that, to
date, 57 Black and interracial churches have been
bombed, burned or vandalized in Alabama, Georgia,
Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina,
Louisiana and other states since January 1990.
Twenty-five of these violent acts have occurred in
1996 alone.  Among the most recent attacks was that
which destroyed a Black church in Tennessee May 14,
the very same day that an NCC delegation was
visiting Nashville to speak with pastors whose
churches had been burned.

We submit to this committee that these
manifestations of domestic terrorism demand the
highest degree of bi-partisan attention at the
federal, state and local levels.  This is not a
Democratic or Republican issue, but rather an
American problem that should arouse moral outrage
and condemnation from all people irrespective of
their race, ethnic origin, religious affiliation or
political orientation.  Furthermore, we call for
strong statements of resolve from both the
Administration and the Congress that this and all
forms of racist violence will not be permitted to
continue and that the perpetrators will be sought
out aggressively and brought to justice.

Mr. Chairman, our investigations have uncovered
striking similarities in these incidents, parallels
that constitute a pattern of abuses -- including the
use of molotov cocktails and other incendiary
devices, the spray painting of racist grafitti, the
targetting of churches with a history of strong
advocacy for African American rights, and racist
notes and letters left in the mailboxes of pastors.
Many churches were attacked on or around January 15,
Martin Luther King Jr. Day (five of those in 1996
and five in 1995).

The 30 persons so far arrested and/or convicted for
these crimes all are white males between the ages of
15 and 45, with several of them admitting to be
members of such racist groups as the Aryan Faction,
Skinheads for White Justice and the Ku Klux Klan.
We suspect, however, that many more perpetrators of
these crimes have not been arrested and brought to
justice 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 the above-mentioned racist groups.

Indeed, many law enforcement authorities at the
local, state and federal levels continue to deny any
connections among the several firebombings and say
they doubt a conspiracy or motivation based on
racism.  Moreover, many local officials have told
victims that theirs are isolated cases, the results
of accidents or electrical fires.

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

In addition to several churches in Tennessee,
private homes and a lodge in Clarksville were
firebombed and shotgunned.  It was in the hills of
Tennessee where the 'whites-only' "Good Ole Boys
Round-Up" meetings took place last year and among
the participants were known agents of the Treasury
Department's Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division
(ATF), one of the federal agencies investigating the
church bombings.

One of the most disturbing findings from the NCC's
tour last week of Mississippi, Tennessee and
Louisiana communities where Black church burnings
had occurred was a consensus of dissatisfaction and
discontent expressed by the pastors and the
congregations over the manner of the investigations
conducted by state and federal authorities.  We
encountered a unanimous dismay that the
investigations are concentrating on pastors and
parishioners, implying that they set their own
churches on fire.

Subtle implications are made that it was for the
insurance money, even though most churches are
uninsured or underinsured.  Some of the pastors have
been asked to take polygraph tests.  Church records
have been demanded and church members interrogated
to the point of tears.  Credible leads provided by
the pastors have not been followed up by the
investigators and, to date, none of the victimized
churches has been informed of the results or of the
progress of the investigations.  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.  They fear that if these crimes go
unnoticed and unpunished the perpetrators may become
so emboldened as to attempt future firebombings
during an actual church service with worshippers in

Although many of the pastors and other church
leaders have received death threats, there have been
no investigations of these threatening calls and no
protection has been offered to the clergy.
Furthermore, there is evidence that the 57 incidents
we have documented to date are only a small
indication of the number of attacks actually taking
place around the country.

It is our contention, Mr. Chairman, that these are
not isolated, random incidents bur rather pieces in
a pattern of hate crimes that have been under-
reported by the media and overlooked by law
enforcement.  It is a sad state of affairs that in
1996 this nation is quietly and, in many cases,
unwittingly accepting the racist destruction of
houses of worship.  The frightening fact is that
white hate groups are growing faster than at any
time in recent history, yet most of the country
remains in a state of denial that such racism and
bigotry is widespread.

The National Council of Churches is determined to
proceed with its campaign to put an end to these
crimes of racial hatred, to restore the houses of
worship that have been destroyed or damaged, and to
demand that thorough, impartial, non-intimidating
investigations be carried out by the Federal Bureau
of Investigation and the ATF.

In coming days, NCC delegations will visit sites
where these crimes have occurred in South Carolina,
Arkansas and Georgia and on June 9 and 10 we will
bring a delegation of pastors from across the South
to Washington, D.C., for an ecumenical worship
service and for meetings with high-level
administration officials and Congressional
representatives.  They will come to the nation's
capital seeking answers and explanations, but more
importantly, they will come seeking to be taken
seriously by the highest authorities in the land.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, we wish to commend you and
your committee for calling these hearings.  We hope
that your action will bring needed attention to this
epidemic of hate that is eating away at the heart
and soul of our nation.  We pray that this hearing
will contribute to a healing dialogue between the
races and to an open, honest and frank recognition
of American racism, which is preventing us from
being truly one nation under God, indivisible, with
liberty and justice for all.

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