Church fires in black communities are piling up in the south of the US
In just ten days, strangers torched four churches of black communities in Louisiana. There are many indications of hate crimes with a racist background.
At five o’clock in the morning, Gerald Toussaint’s cellphone rings. At the other end his wife informs him that their church is on fire. Toussaint, truck driver and pastor of the historic Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, can’t believe it. The 19th-century church in rural Louisiana burns to the ground.
“There is certainly a common ground”
The same fate befell the Greater Baptist Church nearby. “When I was notified at 2:30 in the morning, I was there immediately,” said community member Florence Milburn. “We went with the whole family and watched our church burn down.”
The fires of the Baptist churches are not an isolated case in the deep south of the USA. The St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre was heavily damaged. And a minor fire was “deliberately” placed in the Viviana United Pentecostal community, investigators have noted.
Within a few days, between March 26 and April 4, four churches of predominantly black communities in Louisiana fell victim to fires. “There is certainly something in common,” said the Marshall of the state fire department, William H. Browning.
Churches went up in flames in a row
Striking is also the location of the churches, all of which are located along highways where only a few people live. The chance of finding witnesses is quite low, a local reporter told NPR.
Memories are awakened to racist attacks on houses of worship not just in Louisiana. In the 1960s, at the height of the black civil rights movement, black churches in the south went up in flames in rows. The cause: arson.
In 1995/96, a series of church fires across the country dominated the headlines for months. More than 30 black churches burned down within 18 months. The US Congress passed the “Church Arson Prevention Act” at that time. To cope with the mass phenomenon, the “National Church Arson Task Force” was created under President Bill Clinton.
Attacks on US churches are constantly high
Meanwhile, more than 100 investigators are deployed in Louisiana. There are also around 40 federal officials, including the FBI and the authority “Alcohol, Fire and Tobacco”, which is involved in this type of cases since 1972. The unusually high personnel expenditure illustrates the seriousness of the situation.
It was not until 2015 that a white racist had shot and killed nine people of the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, North Carolina. Meanwhile, parishes are being systematically prepared to protect their places of worship, because arson attacks on black churches are a sad tradition.
According to the US Bomb Data Center, a government agency that collects data on arson and explosion crimes, the number of attacks on US churches has been consistently high for years. In 2017 alone, 243 incidents were reported, of which the authorities classified 99 as arson.
Does Trump encourage “silent” racists?
The investigators are not giving away information about the cause of the fires. Arson is considered likely, as well as the number of fires in just ten days in a region speaks for itself.
Hate crimes and racism have been on the rise in recent years, which many analysts associate with the person and policies of US President Donald Trump. This, according to the argument, causes with his partly rude language to revive old resentments and to encourage so far “silent” racists.
For Florence Milburn, the loss of “her” church is a drama. In July, the 130th anniversary of the church was celebrated. “It’s like losing a family member,” she sums up her grief. For them, the Greater Union Baptist Church has been the family church for generations. This personal connection helps the community to move forward again. Faith and the will to assert oneself become noticeable when Florence Milburn speaks. “We need to rebuild the Church of God.”