SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Fire in the house of God

Published June 10, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Who is burning black churches throughout the South? Federal officials said today they will investigate the possibility that a white supremacist conspiracy is responsible for the more than 30 arson fires at black churches in the past several years. After President Clinton made it the subject of his radio address on Saturday, black pastors met with federal officials and protested that nothing was being done. On Monday, Dallas police said they arrested three white men in connection with an overnight fire at a black church in Greenville, Tex. Police in Charlotte, N.C., said they had arrested a 13-year-old white girl for setting a fire to a black church there last week.

We talked with Michael Reynolds, senior intelligence analyst for Klanwatch, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Alabama, which has been tracking the arson fires since 1989.

Is there, as federal officials hinted today, some kind of overarching conspiracy here?

There's a problem talking about "a conspiracy" or "a national conspiracy." What we may have, looking at the overall pattern, are several conspiracies. If there is a political source, it may be from a strategy called "leaderless resistance" put forth in 1992 by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Louis Beam. He outlined it in the last issue of his publication "The Seditionist," and took it from an anti-Castro Cuban colonel. It's a guerilla strategy. Instead of a top-down structure, you have cells of two to six individuals going out and committing whatever acts they choose, whether its assassination, robberies, arson or bombings -- all aimed at bringing on the race war that white supremacists, whoever they belong to, all want. The idea is to intimidate and provoke. Right now, it's mostly against property.

What patterns are you seeing in these fires?

Since 1989, we've tracked 34 arsons of black churches in eight states -- 35, if today's fire in Texas proves to be another case. Twenty-five of them, approximately 70 percent, have occurred over the past 18 months. Most of them have been directed at churches in rural areas. And they have been concentrated more recently in certain parts of the South, mostly in Tennessee -- where eight churches have been set alight since January 1995 -- and in Alabama, the Carolinas, and Mississippi.

If there are groups who are responsible, who might they be?

Klansmen, neo-Nazis, skinheads. In a South Carolina arson fire last June, we filed a complaint against the local Klan on behalf of the burned Macedonian Church. In that case, Timothy Welch, 23, and Gary Christopher Cox, 22, were charged with arson, burglary and petty larceny. Welch was a card-carrying member of the Beaufort, S.C. branch of the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. There's no indication that any patriot or militia groups are operating here, although like-minded groups could decide to jump in on the action. And these fires have generated so much publicity now that you could also have copy-cats, freelance arsonists with no racist agenda at all.

Why are black churches being targeted?

Welch and Cox said they got together at what the Klan calls a "pig-picking," a barbecue. There they were told that black churches are where blacks sign up for welfare; that these churches are the center of the welfare conspiracy against the U.S. and against white people. Also remember that these were the same kind of targets as in the early days of the civil rights movement, because black churches -- especially in rural areas -- are the core of the black community. Attacking them is seen by violent white supremacists as going right to the heart of the black community to instill fear.

Many of us think of the Klan as something of an anachronism -- a few folks putting on sheets and hoods on a Saturday night. Is that a misreading of its strength?

Not really. It would be a mistake to read these fires as a resurgence of the Klan, although perhaps some of them may be resorting to desperate measures because they have been usurped by other groups -- the Patriot movement, for example. The younger generation of white militants, like the racist skinheads, have mostly forsaken the Klan for a harder line.

Are the skinheads becoming more organized?

They've been very difficult to organize. There is certainly no national movement. However, they can be very fluid -- they think nothing of moving back and forth across the country and striking out of anywhere. You could have a group of skinheads who would travel 60 or 70 miles in a night to torch these churches. They have a greater propensity for violence; their track record over the last decade has been layered with violence, ranging from arsons, to bombings and murder.

Are the skinhead groups growing?

It's estimated that there are around 4-5,000 skinheads in the U.S. Those are the identifiable ones, the ones that come across the police blotter. Among the most violent are the Eastern Hammerskins and the Confederate Hammerskins. They follow the tenets of Christian Identity. Some of them have joined the so-called Army of Israel, which operates out of Utah, Idaho and Nevada. In the South, some of them have ties to the Aryan Nation. Others have a loose network from Florida, Alabama and Tennessee, to Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

These people can do a lot of damage and cause a lot of misery, but it's not your sense that there is some sort of huge, swelling underground force out there.

No, but their communications are way beyond what we've seen in the past. They're very keen on the Internet. We've tracked some 72 home pages alone. They also have bulletin boards, and even use encryption to send messages back and forth. This generation of skinheads are computer-savvy.

Where's their money coming from?

The skinheads will take whatever jobs they can get. They've also been known to rob banks. And setting fires with cans of kerosene and matches is not very expensive. That doesn't take much funding or a lot of brains. Remember, these churches are very soft targets. Driving through the night to torch a country church doesn't take a lot of risk. It's out of the pages of the old Klan, dating back to Reconstruction.

Yet law enforcement isn't having much success busting them.

The resources of local sheriffs departments can be taxed in these situations. And until recently, they were treated as local incidents -- that is until the national media started playing them up. And that wasn't until a Knoxville, Tenn. church -- where Reggie White of the Green Bay Packers was an associate pastor -- was set alight.

What difference will this new "task force" make?

If it goes in seeking some sort of national conspiracy, it will be a waste of time. That type of organization is simply not in place. But given the media attention, and the resources now being poured in, I think it will be more difficult for such groups to continue these arsons so easily. For one thing, you'll see much more security at black churches.

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By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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