THE DATE ALONE HAS A HAUNTING resonance: April 4, 1993, the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. On that day three white teenagers, using hymnals and artificial flowers as kindling, burned down two black churches near McComb, Miss. A year later a gang of six white high-school dropouts went on a four-month rampage in rural Georgia, vandalizing and robbing more than 70 churches—black, white and interracial. They left racial slurs and swastikas on some black churches and set fire to one built in 1872 by ex-slaves.

Yet no one seemed to notice the trail of devastation snaking across the South until Jan. 8 of this year, when arsonists destroyed the Inner City Church in Knoxville, Tenn., where Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Reggie White is assistant pastor. In less than three years, fires have damaged or destroyed at least 25 black churches in the South. Many of these burnings remain unsolved, FBI officials say. "They're putting a dagger into the heart of the black community," says Mary Frances Berry, who heads the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "In symbolic terms there isn't anything worse that anyone could do."

The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI are investigating the burnings, but officials have been careful to say they have not uncovered a coordinated campaign to destroy the churches. The suspects have ranged from drunken teenagers to avowed Ku Klux Klan members—and investigators continue to probe whether the Knoxville fire was racially motivated. Yet many observers say the fires are symptomatic of a time of political scapegoating and rising racial tension, particularly in the South. "I think much of the country is in a state of denial when it comes to race relations," says Bobby Doctor of the civil rights commission's southern regional office. "We've not solved this problem."

Indeed the charred remains of the churches have raised painful memories of an earlier era, during the 1960s civil rights struggle, when hundreds of black churches were vandalized and burned. "The people who burned down churches in the '50s and '60s are still alive today," says Reggie White. "This is going to keep going until we as Americans stand up against them."

Some Americans are doing so. White's own church has received more than $300,000 in donations—much of it from white football fans who have heard of the church's plight. "Kids were taking money out of their piggy banks and sending it to me," White says. In Madison, Ga., where the teenage gang—derisively dubbed the Juliette Jerks—destroyed the historic Springfield Baptist Church, white supporters have donated more than $30,000 toward the half-million dollars it will take to replace the church.

Elsewhere, as investigations slowly progress, the picture remains bleak. "Just when you're thinking it may be over," says Nelson B. Rivers III, who runs the NAACP's southeast regional office, "another burns."

'Racist, pure and simple'

When Willie Carter was a boy, his father carried him every Sunday morning up a wooded hill on the outskirts of Boligee (pop. 300), Ala., to the Little Zion Baptist Church, a tiny congregation amid a cluster of African-American homes. Years later, when he and his wife, Leola, had seven kids of their own, Carter spent Saturday evenings laying out the children's Sunday best, shining their shoes so the whole family would be ready to troop off to Little Zion in the morning. "I couldn't find no better place than church," says Carter, 58, a minister who works in construction. "It kept me alive."

So he was stunned by the telephone call he received late on the evening of Jan. 11. "Y'all's church is on fire!" the caller said. But even before fire trucks could be called out, the red-brick, tin-steepled structure had collapsed. The next morning, surveying the heap of ash, Carter "felt like somebody hit me with something," he says. "I couldn't believe it." The church's 40 members puzzled over whether faulty wiring or a gas leak might have caused the blaze—until they heard some shocking news. Mt. Zoar Baptist Church, serving a black congregation four miles away, had burned down the same night. "Then," says Carter, "I thought, 'Something's going on here.' "

Barrown Lankster, the local district attorney, is also investigating a fire that destroyed a third church three weeks earlier. "What's being attacked is the power base of the African-American community," Lankster says. But with scant evidence and no eyewitnesses, no one has figured out who is responsible for the arson. "We're not any closer to solving these cases than when this investigation began," Lankster says.

Though the races in Boligee generally do not mix—black kids attend area public schools and most whites go to the nearby private Warrior Academy—residents insist there is little obvious tension. Still, says John Zippert, publisher of the local Greene County Democrat, "just below the surface, things are racially polarized, and we aren't together on many things." Even the white mayor, Buddy Lavender—who is also police chief and fire chief of the poor, mainly black community—thinks the fires were motivated by hatred. "This person is a racist, pure and simple," he says. After all, the two fires occurred the day the Democrat reported the sentencing of two young white men who had vandalized three black churches in a neighboring county in February 1994. There has been speculation that the arsonist was reacting to that verdict.

For the congregants at Little Zion, still perplexed about why someone would torch the place that brought them only comfort, joy and togetherness, 79-year-old Ed Carter—Willie's father and the church deacon—points to the Bible. "If you look back at the scriptures, hate first took place between Cain and Abel," he says, "and it's been growin' from there."

'Just an empty feeling'

Every winter morning, Charlie Brooks, 71, gets up to light the wood stove that heats the five-room home he shares with his wife, Nonie, in Fruit-vale, Tenn. On Jan. 13, 1995, he had just risen when he saw flames lighting the horizon outside the back window. "Tell me that's not the church!" he said to Nonie, 70, as he stared in disbelief. "I had to tell him three times it was the church," she says.

The 125-member New Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church—where Charlie was senior deacon and Nonie ushered and made the weekly announcements—had been the center of the Brookses' lives for as long as they could remember. "It's nothing really exciting that happened there," says Nonie. "It's just a closeness. You would just hurry up and want to get to church on Sunday to see everybody."

The fire that night—started by a still unknown arsonist who poured kerosene or diesel fuel in the sanctuary—was a devastating blow. "You know how you feel when you've lost something?" says Nonie. "Just an empty feeling. It was so sad, just like somebody had died." As in Boligee, the fire was one of two set that morning. Johnson Grove Missionary Baptist Church, in nearby Denmark, went up in flames an hour later. "Who in his right mind would destroy a church?" asks Rev. Sherron Brown, New Macedonia's pastor. "Who would burn down one of God's precious gifts?"

That question is plaguing investigators across central and western Tennessee, where six rural black houses of worship burned last year. Last month three white men, who in January 1995 tossed Molotov cocktails into churches near Columbia and Mount Pleasant, were given prison sentences of more than three years for conspiring to violate the civil rights of the church's members. But the four other cases remain unsolved. "At this point it is just too difficult to tell whether they are connected," says Richard Marquise, an FBI official in Tennessee.

Meantime, thanks to donations, some insurance money and a new mortgage, the members of New Macedonia celebrated the first service in their new church in October. But the rebuilding was not without sacrifice. When Brown's bosses at his job as a forklift operator complained that he was taking too much time for church business, he had to quit. As a result, he lost his benefits. "But," says the 46-year-old minister, "I couldn't leave these people."

'They seemed proud'

Members of the Macedonia Baptist Church in Jordan, S.C., are only too familiar with racism. For a time, local Ku Klux Klan members held Sunday morning rallies at a house so close to the church that the 150 parishioners could hear racial taunts between their prayers and hymns. A couple of years back, after the pastor, Rev. Jonathan Mouzon, called Sheriff Hoyt Collins to complain, the rallies stopped.

But the hatred that came with them did not. Last June 21, the small church was burned—a day after a fire destroyed Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, 12 miles away in Greeleyville. Two white men—Timothy Welch, then 23, and Gary Cox, 22—were arrested a week after pawning a PA system they had allegedly stolen from Mt. Zion. They were charged, with arson and burglary, as well as assault and battery with intent to kill, for stabbing a 49-year-old mentally disabled black man days earlier. In his statement to police, Welch—a member of the Klan group that had harassed the Jordan church—said he and Cox urinated on the floor of Mt. Zion and then set the church on fire using hymn books as kindling. In court "they were all smirks," says Mouzon. "They seemed proud of all the destruction they'd done."

The Macedonia Baptist fire caused untold pain for the 100-year-old church's members. "It's a place where people open up their hearts and souls in a very sacred, personal way," says Mouzon. "To have it all go away overnight has been hard."

What is even more disturbing to Rev. Terranee Mackey Sr., pastor of the Greeleyville church, is how white community leaders have offered little support. "There hasn't been nearly enough outcry over what's going on here," says Mackey. When he recently met with an officer of the local bank—who is also the mayor—about a loan to help cover the costs of construction, the man didn't mention the incident. "It's like they all want to pretend nothing is happening," Mackey says. "Maybe they're embarrassed, but this is a time for people to take a stand."

Even worse than silence, he says, has been a renewed tolerance of racism. Just last month, 130 miles northwest of Greeleyville in Laurens, S.C., Klan member John Howard opened the Redneck Shop, a store peddling KKK-embossed clothing and Confederate memorabilia. Such public racism isn't uncommon, says Cynthia Burgess, 28, a fourth-generation Mt. Zion member, who recalls a 20-car Klan parade last spring in Greeleyville. "This always was and always will be a racist country," Burgess says. "I thought maybe times were changing, but now I see they just don't."

THOMAS FIELDS-MEYER
CINDY DAMPIER in Boligee, LORNA GRISBY in Fruitvale, JILL JORDAN SIEDER in Jordan and BRIAN ALEXANDER in Knoxville

  • Contributors:
  • Cindy Dampier,
  • Lorna Grisby,
  • Jill Jordan Sieder,
  • Brian Alexander.