MANHATTAN (CN) – Since the June 17 murder of nine churchgoers in Charleston, a string of seven fires in predominantly black congregations across the South has led to the hashtag “WhoIsBurningBlackChurches” going viral.
In many of the cases in which arson is suspected – including congregations in Macon, Ga.; Charlotte, N.C., or Knoxville, Tenn. – neither federal nor local investigators have been able to answer the question of more than 194,000 Twitter posts.
Capt. D.J. Corcoran, a 20-year veteran with the Knoxville Fire Department, said in an interview that his career began with another fire at a black church that captured national attention.
Corcoran was a rookie in 1996 when Molotov cocktails lit up and destroyed the Inner City Church, famous for its association with the late NFL Hall-of-Famer Reggie White.
White’s accomplishments as an ordained minister and defensive end led to his nickname “The Minister of Defense,” and the attack on his congregation fell during a spike in hate crimes that spurred then-President Bill Clinton to convene the National Church Arson Task Force.
Summarizing the task force’s investigations between 1995 and 1999, then-Secretary of the Treasury Laurence Summers and Attorney General Janet Reno extolled their work as a “marked success” in their final report to Clinton.
A letter introducing the report stated that the “nationwide federal, state and local law enforcement effort” probed 827 arsons, bombings or attempted bombings, bringing charges against 364 suspects.
The task force boasted that this arrest rate was double that of other cases nationwide.
Only 287 of these cases ended in a conviction, however, and just 39 involved hate-crime charges.
Extrapolating from this data, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok calculated that 2.9 percent of the cases the task force investigated were “definitely motivated by bias / hate.”
Clinton’s task force never prosecuted anyone in connection with the arson on White’s Inner City Church, an unsolved case that continues to draw controversy nearly 20 years later.
Vice Sports this year published a blistering editorial titled “The Racism and Incompetence Behind the Unsolved Firebombing of an NFL Legend’s Church.” The article noted that federal investigators did not confirm it to be a hate crime despite finding graffiti messages “DIE NIGGERS” and “DIE NIGGER LOVERS” and a typewritten note about white supremacy on the property.
White, who died in 2004, dedicated much of his platform as a sports celebrity to raising awareness about the case and raising money for a new church that was never rebuilt.
Another wrinkle in the case emerged as the church’s pastor, Jerry Upton, faced felony drug charges. The case revealed that Upton, now serving a decade in prison, spent the more than $912,000 raised for a new church, according to The Associated Press.
Upton “absolutely” denied any connection to arson, and federal prosecutors at the time said the investigation was continuing.
Reflecting on the unsolved arson of old, Knoxville’s Capt. Corcoran said he believes “it was the preacher himself doing this.”
As to the June 21 fire at the College Hill Seventh-Day Adventist, however, Corcoran said vandalism is likely.
“It looks like juveniles,” he said. “We’re still investigating.”
With the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms having “ruled out” a hate crime, Corcoran said, the case has none of the telltale signs that appeared in the Inner City Church case.
In a typical hate crime, “the presenter wants the receiver to know, ‘We’ve done this to you,'” Corcoran said.
A church that caught fire in South Carolina this week offered another link to the Clinton task force cases.
The fire Tuesday evening at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville came days after the 20-year anniversary of a racist attack on the congregation.
On June 20, 1995, four Ku Klux Klan members burned down the church and another one 20 minutes away.
All of the perpetrators received lengthy sentences, ranging from 14 to 21.5 years in prison on federal hate-crime charges. Clinton spoke at Mount Zion’s reopening a year later, and his task force touted the successful prosecutions in its report.
Despite the eerie repetition of history, the FBI believes lightning may be to blame for this week’s blaze, CNN reported.
The recent spate of church fires has renewed interest in the research of the National Fire Protection Association, a trade group that found such blazes staggeringly common in a study two years ago.
Between 2007 and 2011, an average of 1,780 fires a year struck churches, mosques, temples and funeral properties, and only 16 percent of these blazes were “intentional,” the association found.
The June 2013 report contained no information about the motive for these attacks, or the racial, ethnic, or religious demographics of the buildings struck.
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