SIgnificance of Black Church Burnings

                   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

Excerpted from,  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)

A. A Historical Background of the Significance of Black Churches: Beyond a Monolithic Construct of African-American Religion and Religiosity

Notions of religious faith and freedom have shaped much of American political and social philosophy. For many Americans religion is not just a way of thinking, but a way of life. In African-American history, "the church" has long stood at the center of Black communities establishing itself as the pre-eminent source for religious enrichment and secular development.

To capture a sense of the shared historical experiences of African- Americans, in particular African-American Christians, the phrase "the Black Church" evolved. The phrase has developed into a term of art for expressing the centrality of Black churches in Black communities. Although the term, "the Black Church" isa bit misleading, it presents a tangible quality to the intricacies of racial and religious interstionality unique to African- American history. For many African-American Christians, despite their denominational differences, Black churches have always represented a triumvirate of religion, community, and home. Thus, in an attempt to convey the significance of Black Churches in Black communities, scholars have repeatedly asserted that "Black history and Black church history intersect[ed] at so many points as to be virtually identical." Hence, despite the presence of myriad factions of Black churches in America, the depiction of the monolithic Black Church is pervasive throughout African-American historiography as a matter of historical course.

Even though history illustrates many moments in which the social and political experiences of African-Americans either affected or were affected by Black churches, aspects of Black history and Black church histories in many ways remained distinct. In essence, the term "the Black Church" is a misnomer. The term "the Black church" implies that all Black churches share or have shared the same aspirations and strategies for creating cohesive African-American communities. This is far from true.

A deconstruction of the monolithic Black church begins with the acknowledgment of the innumerable differences found among Black communities and the reflection of those differences within their community churches. Black communities differed from region to region. They were divided along social lines, composed of persons from different economic levels, and maintained varying political philosophies. Black communities in the inner cities of the United States have traditionally differed from those in rural areas. Ultimately, the needs and concerns of the members of these varying communities were also dissimilar from area to area. Therefore, like all other Americans, social stratification was a reality of Black Americans. For African-Americans such stratification was affected by the wide range of attitudes toward race, class, gender, education and political affiliation. The social differences that countenanced each sub- community of the larger Black community was also reflected in the identities of Black Churches.

The diversity of Black communities was reflected in the variety of Black Churches. African-American community churches varied in denominational affiliations, theological practice, and regional location. In The Negro Church in America, the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier noted, "Methodist and Baptist denominations were separate church organizations based upon distinctions of color and what were considered standards of civilized behavior." Not only did Black churches differ culturally and ideologically, but each church also differed in the ways it evolved.

Many Black churches were created in response to racial segregation. Many African-American churches were established in response to African-American dissatisfaction with the teachings of "white churches." Some were established simply to bring varying forms of Christianity into Black communities which already had either one or several established Black churches. Consequently, the concerns of independent Black churches reflected the varying concerns of their congregants.

Nevertheless, despite their regional, denominational, and theological differences, Black churches maintained striking commonalities. Black churches were consistently at the social and religious centers of Black communities. The interwoven fabric of the secular and the ecclesiastical within many Black religious institutions created a base upon which African-Americans could organize politically and persist spiritually. Black churches were not only given to the teachings of Christianity but they were faithfully relied upon to address the specific issues which affected their members.

Since the establishment of the first independent African-American church in America in 1773, Black churches have flourished. Even though many African-American churches were created in reaction to racial discrimination and segregation, what developed was more than separate places to worship for African-Americans. Instead, churches became religious institutions devoted to addressing the needs of members of the Black community.


B. Understanding the Church as a Community

The Negro church was not only an arena of political life for the leaders of Negroes, it had a political meaning for the masses. Although they were denied the right to vote in the American community, within their churches, especially the Methodist Churches, they could vote and engage in electing their officers. The election of bishops and other officers and representatives to conventions has been a serious activity for the masses of Negroes . . . . For the Negro masses, in their social and moral isolation in American society, the Negro church community has been a nation within a nation.

In church-centered Black communities, the relationship between one's community and one's church was intimate. Far more than just a place to worship, the Black Church was a nation within a nation. The meshing of Black community life with the religious experiences of African- Americans precipitated the birth of the dichotomy between church and religion found within the construction of Black religions. For many African- Americans, church was not only a place to receive religious instruction on the doctrines of Christianity, church was a community in which to learn about one's world.

Black churches were organizational sites for social and political activities, centers for economic development and growth. As microcosms of the larger society, Black churches provided an environment free of oppression and racism for African-Americans. In Black Churches, African-Americans were consistently exposed to social, political, and economic opportunities which could be sought and had by all members equally.

The representational structure of African-American churches confirmed Black preachers as both religious and community leaders. The sermons of many Black preachers expounded messages of Christianity analogized to the daily experiences of African-Americans. Thematic expressions of overcoming oppression and "lifting while climbing," were first articulated in church sermons.

Using their authority as religious leaders, Black preachers incorporated the teachings of Christianity into political manifestos. Slavery, emancipation, and the continued struggle for civil rights, provided the context for analysis of Biblical stories such as the escape of the Jews from Egypt. The idea of "freedom through collective deliverance," as articulated in the Book of Exodus, gave African-Americans a sense of political and community direction through religious belief and expression. The notion of divine intervention which permeated the lessons of Exodus did not translate seamlessly into a positive mandate for African-Americans to overcome oppression. Yet, the teachings of African-American churches nurtured the motivations of Black people to oppose and overcome racial persecution. African-Americans' belief in divine intervention, coupled with a community spirit to struggle and to overcome social, political, and economic hardships, inspired many Black Church members.


C. Finding a Home in the Church

During the decades of slavery in America, slave associations were a constant source of concern to slave owners. For many members of white society, Black churches and religious meetings symbolized the ultimate threat to white existence. Nevertheless, African-American slaves established and relied heavily on their churches. "Religion offered a means of catharsis . . . African-Americans retained their faith in God and found refuge in their churches." However, white society was not always willing to accept the involvement of slaves in Christianity. As one slave recounted "[t]he white folks would come in when the colored people would have prayer meeting, and whip everyone of them. Most of them thought that when colored people were praying it was against them."

Religious exercises of slaves were closely watched to detect plans for escape or insurrection. African-American churches took on an air of militancy in the eyes of white Americans. Insurrections such as Nat Turner's in Virginia, born out of the religious inspiration of slaves, horrified white Americans. Understanding the potential end which could result from the religious experiences of African-American slaves, many white Americans opposed the participation of Blacks in Christianity.

Despite the social adversity that opposed their existence, Black churches were established, and served as integral parts ofBlack communities. According to E. Franklin Frazier, during times of slavery, and well after emancipation, "the [Negro] church gave support to [Negro] family life [and was] the most important agency of social control [among Negroes]." Insofar as whites could not understand and were afraid of Black religiosity, "the Negro church with its [unique] forms of religious worship was a world which the white man did not invade." Therefore, out of this history of separation and exclusion, Black Churches rooted themselves as the souls of the communities in which they stood.

After emancipation, as racial domination thrived in reconfigured forms, Black churches became virtually the only place for African-Americans to find refuge. As African-American Christians moved from slavery to emancipation their religious practices and houses of worship also changed. They moved away from the "hush-harbors" that they retreated to for solace as slaves, and built churches. Just as the prayer meetings which took place in slave "cabin room[s]" were devoted to countless pleas for deliverance from slavery, the sermons that were given in Black churches addressed the post-emancipation needs and concerns of members of Black communities.

Inevitably, Black churches became sources for Black empowerment. Black churches, such as H.H. Proctor's Congregational Church housed schools, employment bureaus, shelters for the aged and orphans, and meeting places. "In 1886 [African-Americans] organized the National Baptist Convention, in an attempt to reduce the influence of white national bodies among blacks." Black churches worked collectively to deal with Black issues, especially racial discrimination in segregated schools, neighborhoods, and businesses.

As racially motivated violence and terrorism ran rampant across the country, Black churches were staunch in their resistance. In 1908, The Christian Index published the "Colored Methodist Bishops' Appeal to White America-1908." In their statement, church leaders responded to the surge of mob violence and lynchings occurring across the country, denouncing terrorism waged against Black persons and imploring the country to suppress the spread of anti-Black violence. As anti-Black terrorism proliferated into the twentieth century, Black churches grew increasingly vehement in their calls for castigation of racial violence. However the more involved Black Churches became in sparring against the racial intolerance and violence targeted against them, the more the churches and their members were chastised.

By the commencement of the Civil Rights era, Black churches were well established social and political power bases for African-Americans. The enormous presence of Black churches in African-American communities, naturally, sanctioned them with the political power to lead Black people in the movement for civil rights. Yet, Black Churches were torn on whether and how best to get involved in the movement. Some churches and church organizations were completely opposed to any involvement in the political struggle for civil rights. Yet, those that chose to participate did so fervently, organizing by rallies, protests, and marches, while teaching the lessons of Christianity and community involvement. Ultimately, racism made individual African-Americans the targets of racial violence. Racism plus the concentrated political power of African-Americans in Black churches confirmed African-American churches as the central targets for racial violence waged against the entire Black community.


D. Sometimes When There's Racial Hate . . . There's Fire

Extra-legal violence has been an effective means of communicating racial hatred throughout American history, especially as a method of social and physical control. Fire in particular was used not only to inflict physical harm upon disfavored persons in communities, but to send messages which threatened further harm to either persons or property. The pages of American-African history document an undeniable record of the racially motivated use of fire to either threaten or inflict harm upon African- Americans.

During the Civil Rights Movement, "the church functioned as the institutional center" for Black mobilization. Churches provided "an organized mass base and meeting place," for African-Americans to strategize their moves in the fight against racial segregation and oppression. As Black Churches became the epicenter of the social and political struggles for African-American equality, they increasingly became targets for racially motivated violence. Thus, a broad assault on members of a Black community could effectively take place by burning a Black church. The bombing and burning of Black churches translated into an attack upon the core of civil rights activism, as well as upon the larger Black community.

The most infamous example of church destruction, occurred on Sunday, September 15, 1963. When the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was fire bombed, the explosion was felt by the entire Black community. Not only were four children killed in the attack and several people injured, but a community's sense of security within their church was forever shaken.

The burning of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church signified the depths to which racial hatred could fall. Like many other churches bombed before and after, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was attended predominantly by African-Americans. Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, the Church was active in the struggle to desegregate southern public schools and supported the call for equal rights for Black people in America. Even though the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was implicated in this crime, members of the KKK were not the only persons responsible for similar acts of terror throughout the country. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident.

In January 1957, four Black Churches were bombed in Montgomery, Alabama. In April, two were burned in Bessemer, Alabama. In 1958, burned churches were reported in Birmingham and Memphis. In 1959, a church was reported to have been burned in Roscoe, Georgia. In 1963, a church was reported to have been bombed in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, two people were killed in a church that had been used to register for Black voters when it was bombed in 1964.

Starting in 1964, Meridian, Mississippi, was added to the list of places in which Black churches were attacked. In January 1968, two more Black churches were bombed in Meridian. On February 22, the New Hope Baptist Church, "site of a Head Start program and civil rights activities," was torched. On February 23, the parsonage of the Newell Chapel Methodist Church was finally burned after a previous failed attempt.

As a result of the violence, some churches were forced into social incapacitation. Members of the First Union Baptist Church in Meridian were so afraid of being bombed that they opposed using the church for a much needed Head Start Program. Thus, racially motivated arsons, though not successful in destroying the souls of Black communities, managed nonetheless to inflict a significant amount of harm on churches, their congregants, and surrounding communities. FN110] In the end, the message of racial hate was burned into the memories of African-Americans and revisits us every time one of our churches burn.

Black Church fires set by arsonists in the 1990s revivify images of Black people excluded from participating in the Christian faith, lynched by angry mobs, and watching their churches torched during the 1950s and 1960s. Images of anti-Black terrorism are so indelible that they are recreated as African-American churches burn in the 1990s. In places like Amite County, Mississippi, during the last year, the smoking remains of burned or burning Black churches have re-inscribed the message of racial hatred which permeated the 1960s.

In Amite County, Mississippi, racial hate is unquestionably apparent. Graffiti writings of scrawled racial epithets and swastikas on the walls of burned Black churches articulate the unrelenting presence of racism. It is not surprising that Amite County, once deemed one of the two most notorious "church burning capitals of the world," is again a major target for attack. In Amite County, "Black residents [here] have long been the victims of [other] racially motivated attacks--mailbox shootings, cross burnings, hooded Klansmen yelling racist slurs while riding through Black neighborhoods." Such incidents illustrate how far we have not come with regard to eradicating racial terrorism. Therefore, when the Springhill Freewill Baptist Church was burned in 1996, the flames rekindled the fear and outrage produced by the burning of Black Churches a generation earlier.

The arsons of the 1990s inspire fear based not only on what was learned in Black history books, but rather on the recollections of real experiences. Margaret Tobias, a current resident of Amite County, not only "witnessed church bombings of the 1960s, she survived an attempted arson on her home in 1965." Now, thirty years later, as member of the Springhill Freewill Baptist Church, Tobias is, again, a witness and victim of church desecration.

Among the most disturbing aspects of the burning of Black Churches today is the demolition of the comfortable myth that such acts of terrorism ended with the Civil Rights Movement. According to the late Rev. Dr. Mac Charles Jones, former Associate to the General Secretary for Racial Justice, National Council of Churches, "[o]ver the past four years (1992-1996) there have been more Black Churches burned than during the entire Civil Rights Movement." From January of 1995 through July of 1996, more than seventy Black and multiracial churches were burned. More churches were burned during that eighteen month period than during the previous five years combined. As one commentator wrote, the era of "night riders, cross burnings, church burnings, home burnings, and farm burnings" was thought to have passed. Instead the burnings of Black Churches across the country teach us that racial violence is an ugly fact of our American reality.

To burn a Black Church is to conjure up images of past and future fires set to harm members of Black communities. It is in this context of violence and the communication of violence that incidents of cross burning like that which was addressed by our nation's Supreme Court in R.A.V. must be understood. Contextually the historically racist meaning of fire as a threat is understood by arsonists and victims alike. Consequently, whether fire is used to burn a cross or a church such expression must not be viewed solely as "speech," but rather as an incontrovertible threat.

Fundamental to the problem of racial terrorism is our government's willingness to constitutionalize hateful speech, which creates an environment that nourishes hatred against Black communities and results in burned churches. By the time a church is burned to the ground the harm has already been done, and in every case the harm is irreparable. Although some may argue that there is a clear difference between cross burning and church burning, given the history of the expressive meaning of both such argument would stand without merit. R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul vividly illustrates the consequences of inaction in the face of racial intolerance.