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The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH) 

June 21, 1996 


Gov. Fob James of Alabama opened his mouth about black church fires Wednesday and got his tongue bitten.   Gov. James claimed he was just trying to set the record straight. But at a time of high emotion and media mania , record-straightening is a thankless endeavor.  It interferes with too many agendas.   To defend his absence from a Washington conference on racially motivated church arson, James issued a report describing suspicious church fires in Alabama since 1990. His statistics revealed that Alabama has had 38 such fires, with arrests made in 20 of them. In those 20 – eight at black churches and 12 at white churches – race was not a motive, the governor said.

Now, these statistics are either true or they’re not true. So far, nobody has questioned their accuracy. If the governor is lying about this, I say impeach Fob James!   But if he’s telling the truth, his report ought to bring some measure of comfort to black church members in Alabama who, for a couple of weeks now, have been frightened by media accounts suggesting that a wave of racist terrorism is racing like wildfire through black churches in the South.

Gov. James’ report, however, was no comfort to Alabama State Rep. Alvin Holmes. He is civil rights chairman of the legislative black caucus. Since the governor spoke without biting his tongue, Holmes bit it for him. “Fob James’ rhetoric concerning the church burnings is the same white leaders used in the 1960s with church bombings,” Holmes said. “When white political leaders refuse to speak out, it makes the people doing this feel their actions are justified.”

Everybody who remembers the ’60s knows exactly what Holmes was talking about. Back then, white, segregationist officials ignored or covered up terrorist atrocities against black churches, schools and civil rights leaders.   What stopped the barbarism was courage and the light of truth. Rights activists and journalists risked their lives to aim their cameras and their investigations at deceit and racism. Truth is always the friend of the righteous and the enemy of the corrupt. And one of the big bodyguards of truth in our society is the media. Or so the media keep telling us.

But the media have been bumbling guardians of the truth in their coverage of the black church fire story. Bumbling may be too kind a word. A couple of weeks ago, the media began to unreel a chilling plot of a probably organized band of racist arsonists who were burning America’s black churches. Like State Rep. Holmes, the media resurrected terrifying images of the ’60s and issued a call to arms in opposition to this ghastly encore. And the images, as usual, were more powerful than the facts.

In yesterday’s news, we saw a large and dramatic photo of a somber church trustee in Berlin, Md., pointing at the blackened ruins of St. John’s United Methodist Church. It was a photo that could have been taken in the terrorist ’60s, except for the caption, which read: “Officials said yesterday’s fire was caused by electrical problems in the kitchen.”   A recent story recapping the horrors of the ’60s was illustrated with a photo of federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents seeking arson clues in the charred embers of the Hills Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in North Carolina. The same day, the New York Times reported that the fire had started in a faulty fluorescent light fixture.

In Tuesday’s USA Today, a story inside the newspaper quoted ATF statistics that revealed that, since 1995, suspicious fires have occurred at 30 black churches and 29 white churches. “White Churches Equally Subject to Arson,” the headline said. In yesterday’s edition, the paper reported that, in the same time period, 40 black and 29 white churches had burned. No source was given for these numbers. No explanation was supplied for the disparity.

A Newsweek spread this week quoted the Rev. Alfred Baldwin, still in shock at the destruction of his Enid, Okla., church. “I find it difficult to believe a conspiracy that starts in Alabama … or Mississippi would jump up to a city like Enid,” he said.   A 35-year-old white man arrested for the arson was described as retarded and emotionally troubled, on Prozac and recently hospitalized for attempted suicide. “Given the political sensitivity of the case,” Newsweek reported, “officials refused to rule out the possibility that the suspect, retarded or not, had acted under the direction of someone else.”

Several arrests have been made for the church arsons. But you have to read carefully to find accounts of this. Some of those arrested have been black, some white. One white man arrested seems to fit the classic profile of a pyromaniac.   “The people who have been arrested so far are mutts,” an ATF official said. “They have no developed ideology, and there’s no evidence they are hooked up in any grand conspiracy.”

Wednesday in this space, I pleaded for more facts and less frenzy in the church arson story. Many callers telephoned to inform me bluntly that I was a racist for taking this position.   But truth is the old enemy of racism, and fear and distortion are its friends. And in a country like this, where racial tension is the No.1 domestic problem, truth is, or ought to be, the great fire preventative for incendiary emotion.

This subject is a minefield. The media must bridge it with more truth and less poetry. Shouting fire in a tense and crowded theater is an offense against humanity. And against the First Amendment, too.

Record Number: 08673095
Copyright 1996, 2002 The Plain Dealer. All Rights Reserved. Used by NewsBank with Permission.