In the early 1800s, they called them hush harbors: as in, “Don’t tell anyone.” Mentioning their existence, much less their location, could invite violence. Congregations were signs of conspiracy.
White southerners passed slave laws that prohibited black gatherings without white supervision, including congregating at church, out of fear of revolution. They did so at different times in different states. In 1723, Virginia explicitly outlawed black assembly. In 1800, South Carolina prohibited slave assemblies without whites. The church, refuge for many slaves, seemed for whites the most potent symbol of potential insurrection.
The specter of slave rebellions inspired the first burning of the “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Church in Charleston in 1822. According to trial documents, Denmark Vesey, a free black carpenter, hatched the idea of a revolt in the church. He organized members of the congregation and got them to spread the word to their families. Thousands of slaves, from Charleston to the countryside of South Carolina, pledged to join the revolution. They planned to capture weapons from a Charleston weapon store, burn down the city, board ships in the harbor, and sail to newly liberated Haiti.
Slaves who were supposedly loyal to their masters disclosed their plan. In response, the courts tried and hanged thirty-five people, including Vesey. Then they burned down Mother Emanuel.
Or such was the story until 2001. In his essay “Denmark Vesey and His Co-Conspirators,” the historian Michael P. Johnson argues that white southerners concocted the rebellion as a pretext to destroy black-only gathering spaces and to demonstrate the dangers of free blacks, justifying their expulsion. These southerners forced false confessions, in which slaves disclosed the rebellion plan and named Vesey as their leader. Then the white southerners altered the public records to hide their tampering and to include only proof of the rebellion.
Scholars have contested Johnson’s argument, so the question remains open. Regardless, it suggests that white supremacists, self-identified or otherwise, cracked down on black gatherings whether the threat to white life was real or not. By burning down Mother Emanuel, the assault on black churches became a recognized form of retaliation against real or imagined black advances in a pattern that continues to haunt the United States—from Dylann Roof through to the election of Donald Trump.
After the Civil War and emancipation, newly legal Southern black churches became agents of black advancement. Many housed employment centers to aid newly freed slaves and ran programs to teach former slaves how to read. Immediately following the war, the Ku Klux Klan accordingly made burning churches a staple method of anti-black terror, beginning with their establishment in 1866. (How many churches they burned in the next decades is not clear.) Discouragement and demoralization were the goal.
Even where the Klan wasn’t operative, the boiling over of racial tensions tended to result in burning black churches. The same year the Klan was born, black former Union soldiers partied in Memphis’s streets until white policemen attempted to disperse the gathering. The black soldiers refused and chased the policemen, resulting in a shootout between the two groups. Angry white Memphians gathered to terrorize black neighborhoods, fomenting what became known as the Memphis riots. During the violence, at least eight schools and four black churches were burned down.
During the 20th century, black church arson stemmed from fear of possible success, rather than frustration with black achievement. Black church arsons during the Civil Rights era were retaliations against activist victories and fearful responses to coming changes. According to Doug McAdam’s book Freedom Summer, thirty-six black churches in Mississippi burned during the Freedom Summer of 1964, a campaign to register black voters in Mississippi. That’s twelve churches every month, three every week, and one every three days. Any black person visiting a church for worship, voter registration, or other services knew they might die in a blaze.
Ever aware that national problems fuel individual violence, Martin Luther King Jr., whose mother was assassinated inside a black church five years after his own assassination, blamed the government for black church arson. After the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, King wrote a telegraph to Alabama’s governor: “The blood of four little children . . . is on your hands. Your irresponsible and misguided actions have created in Birmingham and Alabama the atmosphere that has induced continued violence and now murder.” The atmosphere King refers to is the same atmosphere that produced black church arsons for the past 150 years, which frames black advancement, real or fabricated, as a threat to white physical security.
One would think that, post-Civil Rights Act, the number of black church burnings would decline. But there was a definite spike in the mid-’90s, though it is unclear how many churches were actually burned. NPR recently claimed that 145 black churches burned between 1995 and 1996, the Center for Democracy Renewal claimed in 1996 that there were 36 arsons in the same time period, and the Southern Poverty Law Center claimed in 1996 that there were only 23. The statistics varied for two reasons. First, arson leaves behind little evidence. Second, what evidence exists rarely betrays a motive, preventing investigators from concluding that racism motivates arson. As Ginger Thompson wrote in The Baltimore Sun after the height of the burnings in 1996, “Nationally, very few arrests have been made of people who are members of white supremacy groups, making it harder for police to predict where and when the arson attacks will occur.”
One of the arsons in California sheds some light. On July 16, 1993, the FBI arrested eight Fourth Reich skinheads for conspiring to bomb Los Angeles’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church and kill Rodney King in the hopes of starting a race war. King had become a sign of the end of legal impunity for anti-black violence: the video of his beating had gripped the nation and, though he lost a criminal case against the LAPD, he won his civil suit. If there was a backlash, then it was in response to increased scrutiny of the LAPD’s excessive force, increased media attention surrounding anti-black violence, and the protests.
“The event that truly awakened me,” Dylann Roof wrote in his manifesto, “was the Trayvon Martin case.” Unable to understand “what the big deal was” and incensed by the media treatment of George Zimmerman, Dylann Roof traveled to Charleston, South Carolina on June 17. He visited Mother Emanuel, the same church white supremacists burned down two centuries prior in response to Denmark Vesey’s supposed plotting of a rebellion, and sat for an hour with its congregation. When they started praying, he drew his weapon and pointed it at an 87-year-old woman. Her 26-year-old nephew told him, “You don’t have to do this.” Roof replied, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.” Then he shot and killed six women and three men. Two survived by playing dead and lying in their community’s blood. He told one he let her survive to tell the world what happened.
The following week, eight black churches burned down. Many thought they were racially motivated. #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches trended on Twitter as news outlets compiled lists of black churches recently burnt down. In the months that followed, four cases were ruled accidents. The cause of one remains inconclusive. Three were ruled arsons. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Fire Arms have neither suspects nor motivation for them, while a federal investigation concluded that the three fires were not connected. As far as federal investigators knew, the arsons were random, isolated acts of violence.
Though the law framed them as unconnected, it is impossible not to see the ideological links. As in the past, they were connected by a desire to destroy black spaces free of white surveillance. They were also retaliations against anti-police brutality protests and their increasing coverage, to say nothing of the increased protest and coverage of structural racism.
In November 2016 came the strangest case of all: the burning of a black church in Greenville, Mississippi a week before the election. On its charred walls, someone had scrawled, “Vote Trump.” Following Trump’s victory, the fire seemed like the confirmation of white supremacy’s triumphant return. A month later, however, authorities arrested a black member of the congregation for the fire and the vandalism. This seemed to contradict all that we had known and come to expect about black church arson.
We may never quite understand the arsonist’s rationale. But we know how conservatives will use it. Shortly after authorities arrested the perpetrator, Breitbart News swiftly condemned mainstream media and institutions—The Atlantic, Vox, the Southern Poverty Law Center—for their assumption that racism had motivated the burning. They preferred their own assumptions: anti-black racism no longer exists, that Trump’s campaign and election do not embolden racism, and so on. In their hands, the story instead became an instance of black pathology: to drive the moral home, the story was accompanied by a distortedly blown-up photo of the suspect’s mug shot, a throwback to the tactics of Lee Atwater and the “Willie Horton” ad.
When Trump’s Muslim ban was announced, the instant reaction were attacks on mosques. One was burned in Texas. A gunman assaulted another in Quebec City. Many media outlets quickly reported, without verification, that a Moroccan carried out the assault. Though it turned out to be perpetrated by a white nationalist, the reporting of the Moroccan assailant went on for hours, particularly on Fox News.
The tactics honed in the long-running campaign against black freedom, it seems, are portable. They target places of refuge that are free from white surveillance. They legitimize the attacks by citing (the spectral fears of) the dangerous infiltration of white society, which looks a lot like achievement by undeserving populations. Under the rubric of self-defense, they blame the minorities already under assault. In the most explicit iteration of this pattern since Trump’s election, his administration plans to reorient the government program “Countering Violent Extremism,” which included white supremacists, to target “Radical Islamic Extremism” alone.
In the case of the black freedom struggle, the frustrating fact is that people have cited and will continue to cite our advances to legitimize anti-black violence when it isn’t entirely clear that we have made the gains that we want. Where Dylann Roof saw the response to Travyon Martin’s murder as black progress that had to be stopped, I saw Zimmerman walking free as yet another rebuke to black demands. Success in protesting anti-black violence should lead, at the very least, to the loss of legal impunity for police officers. That has yet to happen. Until it does, expressing our desire to live will continue to be proof that we should die.