10th Church Claimed by Arsonists, Investigators Have Profile in Case

I guess someone is upset with the churches.

Federal, state and local police officers in Alabama’s Black Belt intensified their search over the weekend for the brazen arsonists whose fires consumed yet another house of worship late Saturday afternoon.

Over the weekend, another 50 officers and investigators were added to the original group of 150 law enforcement officials who, since early February, have been combing much of western Alabama in hopes of snaring the arsonists.

The fire, set Saturday at Beaverton’s Free Will Baptist Church, a predominately white congregation, was the 10th such blaze to engulf a house of worship in the rural area in less than two weeks. Nine other such acts, which law enforcement agents are now officially describing as “arson,” have completely or partially destroyed the structures, all of which were Baptist, in four counties—Bibb, Greene, Pickens and Sumter.

Five of the 10 churches are African-American congregations; the others are predominately white. The first five churches set ablaze were ignited on Friday, Feb. 4. Four were overwhelmingly white in membership. A second cluster of four churches—all African-American—were set afire last Tuesday, in Greene, Pickens and Sumter counties, ironically during the time period when funeral services for Coretta Scott King, the widow of late civil rights icon Martin Luther King, were held in Atlanta.

Since last Thursday, investigators and police officers have been seeking two white men in their 20s or 30s. Eric Kehn, a spokesman for the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency, said the search is based on reports from witnesses at some of the fire scenes and others supplied by “behavorial profilers.”

Kehn, in a statement to the Associated Press, speculated that “they’re not youths or teens.  It’s probably someone in their 20s or 30s. We believe they’re pretty much inseparable. They’re something like bosom buddies.”

According to ATFE agent Guy Thomas, a dark-colored S.U.V., possibly a Nissan Pathfinder, was seen Tuesday night near some of the four black churches.

James Cavanaugh, the special agent heading the investigation for the ATFE, initially characterized the blazes as the handiwork of “thrill seekers.”

That statement, issued early last week, and the words of Mark Potak, a director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, who said, “I don’t see evidence that these these were hate crimes. Anti-Christian crimes are exceedingly rare in the South; it’s more likely to be teenagers or a mentally ill person,” drew sharp rebukes from Elder Spiver W. Gordon and the Rev. Dr. C. T. Vivian, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference national treasurer and founder/director of the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal, respectively. 

In interviews over the weekend, both leaders told BlackAmericaWeb.com that the fires point to a pattern of hate crime and come eerily close to the description of many of the church burnings that lit up the Deep Southern states in the 1990s.

“We don’t have to see the color of the hands to know that these are hate crimes; we have the same enemies,” Gordon explained. Moreover, he said, “the pulpits were the first sections of the churches to be burned, then others were set afire afterward. Love is preached and taught from the pulpits. What was done there are acts of hate, which is the opposite of love.”

In the 1990s, Gordon was a major figure in the group of national fund-raising leaders who garnered substantial sums to rebuild the churches burned in that decade, cases which were ultimately classified as hate crimes. He said he will again lead “another nationwide campaign to raise money to rebuild the churches destroyed this time, just as we did then.” He said “we will do now what we did before.”

Gordon also advised BlackAmericaWeb.com that a statement due late Tuesday from SCLC’s Atlanta national headquarters specifying the organization’s position on the cause and source of the fires “will not be like the others” released by several religious denominations, groups and leaders, apparently referring to cautious assessments some groups have issued since the burnings began.

At the same time, Gordon said, a meeting Monday afternoon with senior ministers representing the burned African-American churches was also scheduled to be held at SCLC’s Atlanta office to apprise them of efforts taken on their behalf, as well as future steps to aid them in their rebuilding plans.

Meanwhile, Vivian, one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s closest and most trusted advisors, expressed frustration over what he said “is a pattern of investigation we saw in the 1990s, which essentially wastes a lot of time questioning black people instead of focusing on the real, live suspects.”

Vivian said the Center, then the Anti-Klan Network, “was the first organization in the 1990s to open up the whole matter of investigating church burnings. We started to track them then; this series of burnings surprised us because five of the churches are predominately white.”

Nevertheless, Vivian said, Cavanaugh’s statements “send the wrong message.  Where is the evidence that these fires were set by people who like excitement, or are ‘thrill seekers?’” The hidden objective of the Klan, Vivian said, was “to intimidate whites so they won’t come out and publicly oppose them, which will mean they can get away with whatever they want to do to blacks.”

Now 81, Vivian’s career as a civil rights activist and leader began in 1947, in Peoria, Illinois. “We opened up lunch counters and restaurants for black people by following the model implemented by James Farmer in Chicago,” he said.

The Rev. Walter Hawkins, the senior minister of the 100-member Dancy First Baptist Church, said he is determined to “preach love.” First Baptist received $5,000 toward its rebuilding effort from a white Baptist association last week.

Dr. Gary Farley, the Pickens County Baptist Associational missionary who supervises 34 mostly white churches with a combined membership of 4,000, said, “We hope our gift will demonstrate to the world that this is not the 1960s, but 2006.”

Posted by loni on 02/14 at 12:43 PM in News

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