The Reverend Alice Parson Wright’s first thought when she heard that a church near hers in Greeleyville, South Carolina, had burned was heartbreaking:
“When I got the message last night, my first thought was: ‘Not again. Not again. Not again.’”
Wright could have been referring to many things—a feeling of attack in the black community, the surprisingly common burning of churches across America—but she was thinking of the same church’s burning on June 20, 1995.
Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal was the third in a string of burnings that attracted national attention and outrage in 1995 and 1996. It became a national symbol of the arsons when President Bill Clinton traveled to Greeleyville in 1996 to speak at the rededication of the rebuilt church. Mt. Zion’s rise from the ashes back then, and its return to embers Tuesday—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—helps to explain why the response has been so powerful already, especially in African American media.
That’s true even though authorities say (anonymously) that preliminary investigations don’t point to arson, as my colleague Emma Green noted Wednesday morning; there were electrical storms in the area that might account for the fire. But church burnings carry a special emotional freight, and amid what might be a pattern of attacks on black churches—it’s still a little difficult to tell how much of an aberration these burnings are, and what the causes are—many people, and particularly black Americans, are upset.
Greeleyville is a tiny town about 50 miles north of Charleston—just 438 residents as of the last Census. Most of them are black. But the town has seen serious racial tension. Two Ku Klux Klan members, Hubert Rowell and Arthur Haley, ultimately pleaded guilty to the 1995 fire. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1996:
For the Rev. Terrance G. Mackey, pastor of Mt. Zion AME Church, the problems are far larger than one trouble-prone family. According to him and other local African Americans, racial inequity and intimidation are the norm in this part of South Carolina. This week, Gov. David Beasley even cited the animosities here as one of the reasons he believes the Confederate battle flag should no longer fly atop the state capitol, the last statehouse to still haul it up each day ….
Mackey said he thinks his church was burned because of his outspokenness on racial and social issues. His only personal encounter with a member of the Haley family occurred last year, before the fires. He said that when he passed Arthur Haley on a sidewalk in downtown Greeleyville, Haley insulted him with a racial slur.
It’s striking to read of Beasley’s position today. The Republican’s support for removing the flag led many voters to abandon him and helped lose him reelection in 1998. Today, South Carolina legislators seem to be on the verge of removing the flag from a site on the capitol grounds where it was moved in 2000.
Members of the Mt. Zion congregation rebuilt their church in 1996, about a mile from its previous site. Volunteers of various faiths contributed money and traveled to Greeleyville to assist. And when the church was rededicated, Clinton, Jesse Jackson, and others came to celebrate. Clinton said:
You think about what happened 90 years ago when the other church was built; people might have expected things like a church bombing. That was the time of Jim Crow, and there were evening lynchings in the South. It was a time of abject poverty, worse than anything we call poverty today. It was, 90 years ago, an expression of faith and courage for people to get together and build a church.
But it was the church that saved the people until the civil-rights revolution came along. And it is, therefore, I think, doubly troubling to people—some of whom are over here on this platform today, who spent their entire lives working for equal opportunity among our people, working for an end to the hatred that divided us for too long—to see our native South engulfed in a rash of church burnings over the last year and a half. We have to say to all of you who have been afflicted by this, we know that we're not going back to those dark days, but we are now reminded that our job is not done. Dr. King once said, "What self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up."
Clinton added, “The men and women of Mount Zion have shown us the meaning of these words by refusing to be defeated and by building up this new church.”
Today, that church is practically gone. “On Wednesday morning, only the brick walls of the Greeleyville church remained,” the Associated Press reported. “The roof had collapsed, and the long windows no longer had glass in them. The side of the church facing the rural highway had a white cross that appeared charred.”
It may be that Mt. Zion’s fire was nothing more than a sad accident of lightning. But given the history of the congregation, and amid the raw discussion of racism throughout the South today, it’s unsurprising that many are skeptical of the preliminary findings and have jumped to the conclusion that racial violence has come once again to Greeleyville.