Amid a spate of six church fires in the South, people are concerned that the high racial tensions have played a role. While many people suspect that the fires were racially motivated–especially in light of the recent shooting spree at an African-American church in Charleston–officials have said that so far that have no evidence or reason to believe that they were racially motivated, and at least one fire that set a Florida church on fire was electrical.
Almost exactly twenty years ago there was a similar outbreak of fires involving nearly twice as many churches. In May 1996 a rash of twelve church fires was reported nationwide, five of which served mostly black congregations. The arsons were seen by many as being racially motivated, fueled in part by stories like the one that appeared in the September 2, 1996, issue of Newsweek: Below the headline, “We Live in Daily Fear” is the slug, “Greenville, Texas, thought it had outgrown its racist past. That was 41 fires ago.” The article went on to describe two recent church arsons in the town of Greenville. Curiously, the article notes that, in the case of both Greenville churches highlighted therein, “[P]olice recently charged a retarded 18-year-old black man with both church blazes.” So even though many in the public–and the Newsweek reporter–assumed that race was a factor, it apparently was not.
The following month President Clinton highlighted the problem in an address to the nation and announced that a national task force would be organized to investigate and combat the crimes. A year later the task force concluded that many of the 429 fires they examined were not racist but copycat crimes. They found no evidence of a racist conspiracy or even a clear pattern to the crimes.
Many were committed by individuals acting alone, and, of those arrested, 42 percent were juveniles. Though some of the fires were traced to racist motives, other arsons were committed for profit, vandalism, or revenge. Of the 199 people arrested in incidents dating back to 1995, 160 were white, 34 were black, and 5 were Latino.
The Insurance Information Institute, a trade group that collects data regarding insurance companies, examined the rash of fires in 1996 and concluded that: (1) most of the fires were set by serial arsonists; (2) the number of fires in white churches also increased in 1995; (3) in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Virginia, fires destroyed more white churches than black ones; and (4) in nine of fifteen black church fires, black suspects were named.
Eric Daniel Harris, former pastor of a rural Baptist church, confessed that he set his own Kentucky church on fire. Harris, who had implied that he thought the fire was either a hate crime or an act of vandalism, said he burned his church to unite his flock. In Wichita Falls, Texas, a minister and three others were accused of burning down their own church to collect $270,000 in insurance in November of 1996.
President Obama has so far not commented on the church fires specifically nor about the possible racial motives behind them, and in fact that may be for the best. The reason: copycats.
President Clinton’s announcement about the church fires actually led to more, not fewer, church arsons: Following the president’s speech, the number of incidents nearly quadrupled. Forty-seven churches were targets of fires or bombs, nineteen of which were black churches. This increase was mainly attributed to copycat crimes: Treasury Secretary James E. Johnson reported that some of those arrested said “they saw it on the news, and this became the thing to do.” Thus the news media, and all the discussions on social media about the fires, may inadvertently help perpetuate the problem.
Whether these church fires are related to each other, or related to race, remains to be seen. A motive, if any, can’t be determined until a suspect is arrested. Until then America will just have to live with the uncertainty but can take comfort that at least one previous rash of church fires wasn’t a racist conspiracy.