Fires In The Night — (Newsweek)

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Jesse Kiely and his wife and daughter were starting their paper route last Thursday morning when they saw the amber glow in the sky a few blocks away. It was 3:58 a.m. in Enid, Okla., and the First Missionary Baptist Church, a predominantly black church founded in the glory days of the Oklahoma land rush, was burning ferociously. Kiely called 911 and learned the fire department was already on its way. On State Street, 82-year-old Iva Ballard woke to the sound of sirens and saw flames engulf the roof of the sanctuary. “”The blaze was just leaping over the top of the building,” she said. “”I kept thinking, If the wind was blowing like a few weeks ago, it would set the whole block afire. I just went to pieces. I was so scared.”

Firefighters saved Iva Ballard’s house, but it was too late for First Missionary Baptist. Within two hours, the church and its new classroom wing, built in 1990 on the hard work and small contributions of its interracial congregation, were a total loss — the latest in a lengthening list of Southern black churches to be destroyed by arson. Nearly 30 churches have been burned so far in 1996 and 41 others, according to an Atlanta-based group called the Center for Democratic Renewal, were burned or vandalized in 1994 and 1995. Many of these cases remain unsolved, and no one has evidence of any national or regional conspiracy. But the sheer number of black church arsons, which now equals the worst years of white racist terror in the 1950s and ’60s, suggests a spreading virus of copycat malice.

CHURCH FIRES ARE AN ELECTION-year issue. With his radio speech on June 8 and a high-profile visit to Greeleyville, S.C., last week, Bill Clinton has thrown the full weight of federal law enforcement into an investigative battle against a shadowy enemy. The FBI and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have assigned 200 field agents to the probe, and the field teams are being jointly supervised by Jim Johnson of the Treasury Department and Deval Patrick, chief of the civil-rights division at the Department of Justice.

Their mission is to uncover any sign of racist conspiracy within this contagion of arson — and the Enid case shows how tough that will be. Last Friday Enid police arrested a white man, identified as Christopher Harper, 35, and held him pending arraignment. A team of FBI and ATF investigators came to town, and a specially trained black Labrador named Iris, who sniffed out the presence of accelerants in the ruin of First Missionary Baptist, confirmed that the fire in fact was arson. The Rev. Alfred Baldwin, still in shock at the destruction of his church, said he found it “”difficult to believe a conspiracy that starts in Alabama or Mississippi would jump up to a city like Enid.” But “”whenever you have individuals sending out hate messages on radio and TV,” Baldwin said, “”somebody at the very bottom rung of the ladder will take that as encouragement to do evil.”

This inference — that a nationwide climate of racial rancor is inducing some people to act out their hostilities — seemed reasonable. But the emerging facts of the Enid investigation suggested that the Reverend Baldwin, understandably enough, may have been jumping to a conclusion. After interrogating the suspect for hours, federal investigators tentatively concluded that the motive for the arson was not racism. His mother, Mary Smith, described Harper as retarded and emotionally troubled. She said he had been taking Prozac and that he had been hospitalized repeatedly for attempted suicide, most recently in early June. That was hardly the profile of a political arsonist. “”I haven’t seen any evidence that this was a hate crime,” one federal official told NEWSWEEK. Given the political sensitivity of the case, Justice Department officials refused to rule out the possibility that the suspect, retarded or not, had acted under the direction of someone else. But for the time being, at least, there was no sign that Enid, a town that is proud of its history of racial tolerance, had been invaded by a cabal of right-wing terrorists.

The big picture is no less confusing. Not counting Enid, which came too late for this tally, ATF currently lists 38 fires at predominantly African-American churches since Jan. 1, 1995. Of these, 24 are “”active” arson investigations, which means no suspect has been arrested. Six other cases have been cleared with the arrests of eight suspects. (The remainder, eight cases, are regarded as accidental fires.) “”The people who have been apprehended so far are mutts,” a senior ATF official told NEWSWEEK. “”They have no developed ideology and there’s no evidence they are hooked up to any grand conspiracy.” NEWSWEEK has interviewed a dozen agents on the federal task force — and most agree that the investigation will uncover a range of explanations for the fires. “”We’re going to find out that some of these cases will involve no racial animus, a few will be inside jobs and some will be done by extremists,” one FBI agent said.

The burning of two black churches in Clarendon County, S.C., last year may be a case of extremist terrorism. The Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Williamsburg, S.C., burned on June 20, 1995, and the Macedonia Baptist Church in Manning burned two days later. Local authorities arrested Gary Christopher Cox, 22, and Timothy Adron Welch, 23, in connection with these fires, and both men have been indicted for arson under state law. (Both have pleaded not guilty.) Clarendon County Sheriff Hoyt Collins said Welch was carrying a membership card for the Christian Knights of the KKK when he was arrested. Federal authorities are considering civil-rights charges against them, and FBI agents are investigating the possibility that the Clarendon County arsons are connected to other church fires.

The reality is that the federal task force is entering a quagmire. Arson is always a tough crime to investigate, and the evidence in many of these cases is getting old; some may never be solved. With some 300,000 churches nationwide, there are approximately 600 cases of arson against church buildings every year. The overall trend is down, although not among black churches in the rural South. Many of these churches are older wooden buildings — tinderboxes — located on country roads miles from police and fire departments. They are extremely vulnerable to arson and, because they burn so quickly, often destroy evidence of the crime as well.

The black clergy who descended on Washington a week ago are deeply skeptical of ATF. One reason is that ATF agents — who know from experience that about half of all arsons are inside jobs — have questioned and in some cases polygraphed black churchmen in search of leads. “”They strapped a lie detector on me and asked me if I burned the church,” says Harold Smith, assistant pastor at the Inner City in Knoxville, Tenn. “”When your life is in the ministry … it hurts to be asked questions like this.” Aggressive investigative tactics have already led to trouble at the top. Told that federal prosecutors had subpoenaed some black clergymen in a search for inside suspects, Attorney General Janet Reno reportedly blew her stack and ordered a top-level summit meeting to set limits on the field agents’ tactics.

As administration officials struggled to meet Clinton’s declared goal of bringing racially motivated arsons to a halt, new fires destroyed black churches in Charlotte, N.C., and Greenville, Texas. These fires inspired White House aides to scramble Clinton’s travel schedule to allow the stop in Greeleyville, S.C. — where Clinton, in his familiar role as the nation’s consoler-in-chief, delivered a moving speech at the dedication of a black church that was burned out last year. But even Jesse Jackson acknowledged that Clinton must walk a fine line: too much crusading by this president could prompt even more arsons by the loose cannons of the ultraright. Given the weird admixture of racism and simple looniness that lay behind these crimes, prayerful caution — and even a measure of forgiveness — seemed the wisest stance. “”We want the world to know we are not angry with anyone,” said the Rev. Alfred Baldwin, summing up the tragedy in Enid “”We are a loving church. But it just broke my heart.”

So far in 1996, at least 27 suspicious fires have been identified at black churches across the South. That doesn’t include seven fires deemed accidents.