Politics and Church Burnings

By Michael Fumento

Commentary Magazine, October 1996
Copyright 1996 Commentary Magazine

  Print this  Print this    Make text larger    Make text smaller

"FLAMES OF HATE: Racism Blamed in Shock Wave of Church Burnings," read the screaming headline in the New York Daily News this past spring.

"The South Is Burning: A Rash of Torchings at Black Churches Has Resurrected the Ugly Specter of Racism," chimed in the Toronto Star. Newsweek warned of "Terror in the Night Down South," while USA Today reported that "Arson at Black Churches Echoes Bigotry of Past."

Throughout the media, among public figures, and indeed among most Americans who voiced an opinion on the subject, a consensus had formed by mid-June that burnings of black churches in the South had so escalated in number over the past two years as to reach the proportions of an epidemic — an "epidemic of terror," in the words of Deval Patrick, the assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights at the Justice Department.

The cause, it was also agreed, was a terrifying resurgence of white racism. Mac Charles Jones, a board member of the Center for Democratic Rights (CDR), which played a crucial role in bringing the story of the burnings to public attention, initially described them as the handi-work of "a well-organized white-supremacist movement."

But when law-enforcement authorities failed to uncover evidence of a conspiracy so specific as that, more generic, more sweeping, and more frightening explanations began to circulate and take root.

After all, asserted Deval Patrick, if the notion of a single conspiracy behind all the incidents was "a chilling thing," the idea "that these are separate acts of racism [is] even worse." Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives and a former chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, agreed: rather than an identifiable conspiracy, she stated, "we are confronted with something far more dangerous." A CDR staff member summed up the nature of that danger in a dramatic if also vague and cryptic phrase: the "conspiracy," he said, was "racism itself."

These words were quickly repeated by Al Gore — "for a large number" of the fires, the Vice President proclaimed, "the conspiracy is racism itself" — and soon echoed widely. Indeed, not since the urban riots of the 1960’s had a series of events given rise to such apocalyptic talk about the attitudes of American whites toward American blacks.

To Jesse Jackson, we were facing "a kind of anti-black mania, a kind of white riot." Representative Maxine Waters (Dem.-California) declared that "never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be refocused on such outright tyranny." President Clinton drew a parallel between the arson attacks and ethnic violence in Bosnia and Rwanda.

Visiting Auschwitz, Hillary Clinton (according to Reuters) "compared the motives for the church burnings to the World War II Holocaust." Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, also invoked events leading up to the Holocaust, as did a number of other Jewish leaders.

Given this climate, it was not long before politics of a more mundane kind began to enter in. "The fuel for these fires," wrote Bob Herbert, a columnist for the New York Times, "can be traced to a carefully crafted environment of bigotry and hatred that has developed over the past quarter-century."

Bruce Haynes, a professor of sociology at Yale, spelled out some of the components of that "carefully crafted environment": "the [1994] election, the Gingrich revolution, the rhetoric from [Pat] Buchanan . . .[which] have helped to create a climate of tolerance of hate."

To the Reverend C.T. Vivian, chairman of the board of CDR, the arsonists were clearly allies of the Christian Right: "There’s only a slippery slope between conservative religious persons and those who are really doing the burning." And when the Christian Coalition offered to set up a special fund to help rebuild burned churches, Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, dismissed the gesture with these words: "You have the very people who created the context for the fires rushing over and saying ’Let us help you put them out.’"

In fact, however, as I and a few others tried to point out, the "epidemic of terror" was a sham. On July 5, Fred Bayles of the Associated Press summarized the results of a lengthy "review of federal, state, and local records." Of a total of 409 church fires since 1990, it turned out that about two-thirds were at white churches, while of 148 fires since 1995, slightly more than half had also been at white churches; none of these, presumably, could be attributed to white racism.

Even more significantly, in the fires at black churches, "only random links to racism" could be found. Bayles’s conclusion was unequivocal: there was "no evidence that most of the 73 black-church fires recorded since 1995 can be blamed on a conspiracy or a general climate of racial hatred."

In a similar vein, the July 15 issue of the New Yorker (which appeared on July 8) carried a lengthy analysis by Michael Kelly under the title, "Playing With Fire." Kelly reported, among other facts, that fires at churches both white and black had sharply decreased since 1980, and that the overall number in 1994 was the lowest in fifteen years.

As for the admitted rise in attacks on black churches since 1995, that was attributable in part, Kelly wrote, to "an upsurge in the reporting of arsons," and in part to "copycat arsonists who may have been racist but who also had been inspired by the media attention given to the fires."

From "the evidence to date," Kelly concluded, the true picture of black-church fires is less clear, and less apocalyptic, than what the public has been led to believe. . . . Some of the black-church fires were accidents. Racism is strongly indicated in fewer than half of the black-church fires investigated to date. Other motives include mental instability, concealment of theft, and vandalism. . . .

I myself weighed in with an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal on July 8 in which I reported the results of my own independent investigation. In many respects my findings paralleled those of Bayles and Kelly, but with differences of emphasis.

I was especially interested in how the idea of a racist epidemic — Kelly called it more of a myth than a lie, while to me it was closer to a deliberate hoax — came to be promoted. This had led me to explore in greater depth the role played by various left-wing advocacy groups, in particular the Center for Democratic Renewal.

What I found was that beginning last winter and throughout the spring, the CDR, in conjunction with the National Council of Churches (NCC), had been feeding the media a steady diet of "news" about black-church burnings in the South.

These efforts had been rewarded with considerable attention, but real momentum developed only after another church fire on June 6 (later revealed to have been set by a disturbed thirteen-year-old girl) galvanized CDR to call a press conference where it re-released a sensational report prepared a few months earlier. Since 1990, the CDR now alleged, there had been 90 arson attacks against black churches in nine Southern states; the number had been rising every year; and each and every culprit "arrested and/or detained" was white.

These activities of the CDR were a principal source of the national excitement over the alleged epidemic of burnings, as well as of the hysterical response by journalists and public figures. But as I showed in my Wall Street Journal article (and as was confirmed separately by Bayles and Kelly), the CDR’s assertions were baseless.

By contacting officials in various Southern states, and comparing their figures with those on the CDR list, I established that the CDR had systematically failed to count fires set by blacks in black churches, had labeled as arson a number of fires which responsible authorities insisted were attributable to other causes, and had altogether ignored fires in white churches.

Like Kelly, I found that black-church fires had demonstrably increased in number only after press reports began to appear, and that the increase could be largely ascribed to a combination of more reliable statistics and copycat behavior. In short, by claiming an epidemic of black church burnings, the CDR, I concluded, might actually have helped bring one about.

Since my piece was published, more has been learned about CDR, its friends, and its mode of operation. Typically identified in news accounts as a "watchdog" or "anti-hate" group, CDR has, according to its own promotional literature, a rather more explicit agenda than that: namely, working "with progressive activists and organizations to build a movement to counter right-wing rhetoric and public-policy initiatives."

One such "progressive organization" is the National Council of Churches, well known for its own partisan support of a variety of left-wing causes. Indeed, Mac Charles Jones, the CDR board member credited with the idea of publicizing the burning of churches, is a full-time "associate for racial justice" on the payroll of the NCC.

Whatever they had in mind when they started their mendacious campaign, the two organizations have certainly struck gold with it. As an August 9 story in the Wall Street Journal revealed, the NCC had been experiencing severe difficulty in raising money for its "ambitious programs designed to combat racism." Jones’s brainstorm offered a solution to the problem. In partnership with seven other groups, the CDR and NCC rapidly established a "Burned Churches Fund." Placing full-page advertisements in major newspapers, the coalition solicited contributions that would be used "to restore the damaged churches" as well as "to challenge racism throughout the country."

Today the coffers are overflowing. According to the Journal, the appeal has enabled the NCC to raise "more money more quickly than it has for any previous cause." By early August it had accumulated $9 million from Americans sincerely alarmed by the specter of burning black churches, and contributions were continuing to pour in at the rate of approximately $100,000 a day. In fact, between insurance coverage and the Burned Churches Fund, enough money is now available to rebuild each church three times over.

A detail not reported by the Journal is that the person responsible for overseeing the Burned Churches Fund is an employee of the NCC named Don Rojas, who once served as press secretary to the late Marxist leader of Grenada, Maurice Bishop. In the late 80’s, Rojas moved on to the Amsterdam News, New York’s black weekly, first as a reporter and then as its executive editor; during his tenure the paper outspokenly defended Leonard Jeffries, the chairman of City College’s black-studies program, notorious for his racist diatribes against whites and Jews.

Whether or not Rojas’s position is a source of concern to sponsors of the Burned Churches Fund — the coalition includes a number of normally cautious mainstream organizations, Christian and Jewish alike — the fact is that by early August over a third of the $9 million collected so far had already been earmarked for purposes other than rebuilding churches.

Those purposes, according to the Wall Street Journal, include what Mac Charles Jones calls "program advocacy"-seminars and other forums to promote "economic justice" and combat "interlocking oppressions from gender to homophobia." Where else the money may be going under Rojas’s supervision is, at the moment, anyone’s guess.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this entire story concerns the public response to those who have raised questions about the alleged epidemic. Although Fred Bayles won an award for his expos’ from the Associated Press, only a handful of the hundreds of newspapers which subscribe to that wire service carried his report.

Kelly’s piece was mentioned in the Christian Science Monitor and by a couple of columnists. MyWall Street Journal op-ed also drew the attention of a handful of columnists and editorial writers, but apart from a single mention in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, no newspaper examined its claims or even cited it.

The most egregious practitioner of journalistic negligence has been theNew York Times, which devoted two full-page spreads to the so-called wave of arson and mentioned the church burnings in over 100 news stories, but which never once discussed any of the issues raised in the three dissenting pieces. Needless to say, the Times has also carefully refrained from inquiring into the background of the CDR or the operation of the Burned Churches Fund.

But the Times is hardly alone. In his June 13, nationally-syndicated column, Clarence Page complained of a "conspiracy of silence" about the church burnings; in fact, by that date, over 1,400 references to the arson attacks had already appeared in the media since the beginning of the year. If there has been a conspiracy of silence, it is mainly the one that has enveloped the critics.

It might be too much to expect any of the pundits and public figures who seized on the CDR’s report as a vehicle for scoring points against their political opponents to register the fact that it was in essence a fabrication, let alone to apologize for the orgy of name-calling in which they participated.

But one would think at least some journalists might have been led to wonder what this episode says about the way "news" is manufactured, packaged, and shipped these days, or to reflect on their own role in plunging so many Americans into a paroxysm of utterly baseless recrimination.

But in the end, it seems, the inclination to believe the worst of their country once again trumped that intrepid sense of skepticism for which journalists are forever congratulating themselves. As for admitting that they were wrong, and wildly irresponsible, that is a prospect apparently too horrible for them to contemplate.


Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on the Great Church Burning Epidemic and on the media.

Michael Fumento’s previous articles in Commentary include "AIDS: Are Heterosexuals at Risk?" (October 1987).