Not Just Another Black Church

Not Just Another Black Church: The Power and Pain of #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches 

“Another Black Church Burns in the South.” “Black Churches Are Burning Again in America.” #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches

Since the terrorist attack at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina that left nine dead after a Wednesday night Bible study, a number of predominantly-black churches have burned. The number changes daily, as more churches burn and as news outlets revise their assessments of each church’s population. (College Heights Baptist Church in Elyria, Ohio and Fruitland Presbyterian in Gibson County, Tennessee also burned in this period, but both were regrouped as mostly white churches). Also in flux are official determinations of the causes of the fires. Investigators determined that the fire at Greater Miracle Apostolic Holiness Church in Tallahassee, Florida was likely set off by an electrical short. A federal law enforcement official told the Associated Press that the most recent church burning, at Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina, likely ignited after heavy thunderstorms and lightning battered the area last night.

Whether or not these particular fires were set intentionally, the historical and political salience of violence against black communities, and black churches in particular, deserves our immediate and sustained attention. And, at the same time, we also need to consider the individual tolls taken by the violence, as those who suffered these attacks struggle to recover in the months and years to come.

The church burnings follow in the wake of the Emanuel AME church shootings, which added to the already-pervasive news of physical brutality against black individuals and black communities. From Michael Brown and Freddie Grey to the suppression of riots in Ferguson, Missouri to an infamous high school pool party in McKinney, Texas, details of aggression against black Americans appears daily on TV, computer, and phone screens. Media outlets and political protests have focused to a large extent on the role of the police officers in instigating unwarranted aggression against black populations. While this should not be overlooked, as others have pointed out, the increasing militarization of the American police force (the making of the “warrior cop”) is only a part of a larger story.

At the center of this story is the powerful legacy of American racism. The slavery that marked this country’s early history was supplanted by the “Black Codes” of 1865-1866 and the Jim Crowe Laws that governed from 1890 to 1965. Even after the Civil Rights Movement, systemic segregation against black communities continues. Expressions of racism have shifted form, taking  shape in programs like New York’s Stop-and-Frisk. Moreover, as Michelle Alexander pointed out in her widely-read book The New Jim Crow, America’s War on Drugs disproportionately affects black Americans, which has led to the mass incarceration of black men across the country. The violence in and against churches in the past two weeks is part of this brutal history and affirms for many (as it should) that we have not overcome it.

The church burnings also evoke a long history of violence against African Americans. In articles in The Atlantic, David Graham and Emma Green discussed the historical and political salience of violence against black communities and black churches. From its inception, the Ku Klux Klan targeted black institutions – churches among them – in their attacks. Particularly during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the KKK amplified its terrorist efforts in the South; in 1963, the group infamously bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young schoolgirls and injuring two dozen others. In the mid-1990s, memories of the 1950s and 1960s church arsons were painfully recalled when more than two hundred black churches burned in mainly coordinated attacks in the South. Lest we think the election of the first black president signaled the end of a racist era, a black church was burned in Massachusetts on the day of President Obama’s inauguration. The historical gravity of black church burnings in the U.S. reverberates through the past two weeks of church fires.

In addition to the historical circumstances around the recent church burnings, the sites themselves also magnify the impact of the violence. Marginalized groups perceive their worship spaces as welcoming and secure locations, but attacks to these spaces often cause congregants to feel fearful and anxious in their places of worship. As a scholar of religion, politics, and violence, I work on the consequences of violence committed to religious communities’ places of worship. My research suggests that because minority groups’ places of worship in America function as nexuses for religious practice, collective sanctuary, and social movements, communities experience enduring traumas after violence to their sacred spaces.

Synagogues, mosques, temples, and black churches alike offer minority groups safe spaces to seek refuge, to connect with community, and to formulate shared homes. They serve as central hubs for the disenfranchised to orchestrate efforts to generate social change. Black churches in particular have served as sources of inspiration and sites of action, providing the ideological foundations and the organizational means that propelled forward the Civil Rights Movement. As my colleague Matthew Cressler pointed out in his article at Slate, churches like AME (or Briar Creek, or God’s Power, or Glover Grove, or College Hill) are both religious safe havens and political institutions. Subsequently, he argues, the black church challenges and threatens white supremacist power structures, inspiring white terrorist attacks against black communities and providing the target for those attacks.

What has been ignored in much of the media is what is most important about these churches. These were spaces in which black communities gathered, celebrated holidays and life events, studied, and prayed. These are spaces that have been lost, communities that must find ways to rebuild, individuals who struggle with pain and terror even after the rubble has been cleared. “This is striking a real chord of fear,” said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center. “There’s a deep well of feelings and fears.” Glover Grove Pastor Bobby Jones confirmed the well of emotion attached to the burning of his church, telling the Aiken Standard, “It was devastating… It was just an empty feeling. The more I talk about it, the more grievous I get.” Regardless of who is burning black churches, these congregations must grapple not only with the realities of financial burdens and  physical reconstruction but with the trauma that sits uncomfortably within each congregant in the weeks, months, and years to come.

Reporters, social commentators, scholars, and other Americans do both a service and a disservice to the communities injured by these violent events when we group together the church burnings in our efforts to understand the attacks. It is important to make clear that these acts of terrorism emerge from a deeply-rooted racist history and are part of a response to the political strength of the black church in America in a contemporary social context that in many ways still condones the physical and systemic oppression of the black community. The intensive focus on historical racism, police militarization, and white-on-black terrorism should not however come at the expense of considering the individual human losses that also have occurred in each church burning. While the bigger picture deserves immediate attention, we should also attend to the physical and emotional human wounds caused by violence of any kind, the vulnerabilities it renders raw and exposed, and the consequences it has for local social and familial relations in the impacted communities.