Black Church Burnings: Constitutionalizing Hate Speech

                   Complete Survey:  Race Relations 2011


Home Up Black Church Burnings: Constitutionalizing Hate Speech SIgnificance of Black Church Burnings R.A.V. Decision: Where Law and Principles Collide


Michele M. Simmsparris

What Does it Mean to See a Black Church Burning? Understanding the Significance of Constitutionalizing Hate Speech, 1 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 127-151 (Spring 1998) (Citations and Footnotes Omitted)

"People who will burn a cross will burn a church"1

The Color of Night2

Somewhere in the middle of some place, in the middle or at the fringes of this place--your space and, yes, my space too--America there resonates in the crackling timbre of heat and hate a spate of yellow, blue, orange, and red. Color. How tragically appropriate when we stop to consider, stop to understand, when we stop. and realize that somewhere in the final analysis sound has a smell, sight has a taste and fire for the purpose of trepidation ignites more than a conflagration of wood and mortar but it completes a searing of the soul not just mine, not just theirs--not just America. Somewhere in the after-dusks of Tennessee and New York Alabama and Michigan, Georgia, Virginia, Texas and possibly Maine, there is a color of night that burns bright like a memory it looks exactly the same each time. It is a sacrilegious song for a sacrilegious dance a choreograph of building up and burning down and building up again for the continuance of--America. Somewhere in the truthfulness of our existence we understand that logic and hate could never be wedded. we understand that it takes more than words to express the soul and home is that intangible place built by memory. But this, this is not a death for me. Like the Phoenix ours is a mandate to resurrect from the pyre. This is the work done and undone to be done better again, the next time by shared hands that appreciate that color is always beautiful, even at night, even in this place-- America.

Racism burns at the core of American society. It singes our cultural fabric and makes this country, for some, a terrible place to call home. The recent wave of Black church burnings should inspire in all of us the desire to closely examine and evaluate the state of race relations in this country today. It is disheartening to know that Black churches still burn. Equally troublesome is the Supreme Court's willingness to protect racially motivated cross burnings, which lie on the continuum of racial violence with church burnings, as expression protected by the First Amendment.

The history of church burning in the American past is long and turbulent. Church burning represents the dangerously violent heights to which racial hatred may rise. Like cross burning, the message of racial hate and promised harm is clearly articulated to African-Americans when a Black church is burned. However, unlike cross burning, the burning of Black churches articulates hatred toward the larger Black community, to which the church is inextricably linked. . . .

In light of the recent church burnings across the country, the Supreme Court's decision in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul is clearly erroneous. In a decision to protect free speech by protecting symbolic hate speech, in this case cross burning, the Court has converted the ideal of free speech into a free-for-all for racists.  History and the experiences of countless victims of racially motivated assaults provide evidence of the painfully clear message of hate expressed by racially motivated arson. Given the loathsome history of racial violence in this country, the Court's disregard of racially motivated hate speech, as evidenced by the R.A.V. decision, virtually invites Americans to openly express a perilous level of hatred toward one another.

This comment explores the rich past of African-American churches and their roles within Black communities across the country. The historical significance of Black Churches to Black communities makes Black Church arsons especially harmful. Attention will be given to the emergence and development of Black Churches, their functions in Black communities, and their political power. Ultimately, the history of Black Churches and their arson will provide the appropriate basis by which to discern the meaning of Black Church arsons plaguing the 1990s.

This paper will also analyzes the R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul decision and its significance in relation to the church burnings of the 1990s. An examination of R.A.V. uncovers how the law is applied to protect the expressive aspects of hate speech as free speech, and thereby encourages its proliferation. It is within the history of violence against Black institutions, such as Black churches, that we are presented with solid reasons for overturning the R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul decision.

Only through a detailed analysis of the ways in which the law ignores the social and legal significance of racially motivated arson can we begin to find ways to remedy some of the problems associated with racism. The R.A.V. decision illustrates what happens when laws are applied without understanding the social contexts in which they will work. Racially motivated church burning is a horrendous social phenomenon that demands legal recourse.

Each time a cross or church is burned the assurance of civil peace in the United States is lost. A loss of civil peace invariably translates into a loss of ordered liberty. The existence of sloppy legal thinking allows for such intolerable practices to slip through the cracks of jurisprudence and ultimately harms us all. To see a Black church burning is to witness not only an assault on African-Americans or their communities but to witness an assault on the true values of freedom which underpin our Constitution.


1.  Nikki Giovanni, A Greater Love of God and Country, in LOVE POEMS 44, 44-45 (William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1997).

2. Michele M. SimmsParris (1997)