Fire probe intensified by Clinton Program accelerates arson investigations at black churches

'Working very hard'

President pledges 'to get to the bottom' of any conspiracy

June 08, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Alarmed by the latest burning of an African-American church in the South, President Clinton has decided to unveil a series of steps today to try to capture those responsible and to protect other black churches.

"We are working very hard to get to the bottom of this," Clinton said yesterday.

The president said he would devote his weekly Saturday radio address to the issue. In that speech, White House officials said, the president will:

Reassure black Americans and others disturbed about these fires, which now number 30 since early 1995, that an extraordinary federal law enforcement investigative effort is already under way in the form of a joint Justice and Treasury Department team involving hundreds of agents.

Announce that he is stepping up that push by deploying additional agents and resources from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Meet with a group of black ministers to focus attention on the issue and direct federal officials to visit black congregations to help educate parishioners and ministers on how they can better protect their churches.

Express support for bipartisan legislation, pending in Congress, that would make it easier to prosecute these arsons in federal court.

Give out a new toll-free number that those with information about the cause of the fires can call and reveal what they know directly to federal authorities.

"He really wants the federal government to do everything in its power to get to the bottom of these cases, whether or not there is a conspiracy," said one senior White House aide.

In recent testimony on Capitol Hill about the fires, Deval L. Patrick, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said the fires appeared to be part of a larger national increase in hate crimes. But Patrick was careful to say that at this point, the Justice Department has found no direct links among the fires, which are spread out over eight Southern states.

ATF officials are investigating the causes of fires at six black churches in Tennessee, five each in Louisiana, South Carolina and Alabama, four in North Carolina, three in Mississippi, and one each in Virginia and Georgia.

Five people have been arrested so far. Two of those were South Carolina men with ties to the Ku Klux Klan who were charged with setting one of the fires after attending a Klan rally.

A South Carolina church filed suit yesterday against a white supremacist group over one such case of arson last year. The civil suit, filed by the Macedonia Baptist Church against the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, based in North Carolina, is likely to be the first of a series.

Randolph Scott-McLaughlin, vice president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is working with the National Council of Churches and the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal to stop the church burnings, said his group was planning a number of similar civil suits.

Mike McCurry, Clinton's spokesman, repeated Patrick's point yesterday that so far federal officials have found no widespread conspiracy linking the fires, including yesterday's blaze. Nevertheless, the president and his aides are well-aware that the fires have sent tremors of anguish throughout Southern blacks. Arson of black churches is remembered as a particularly ugly weapon used by white racists during the civil rights movement.

African-American leaders such as Nelson Rivers III, Southeastern director of the NAACP, suggested yesterday that the arson fires have laid bare a sad truth -- that race relations, after years of improvement, are deteriorating again.

"America is a meaner place than it was," he said.

The burnings have sparked revulsion across the political spectrum. The Christian Coalition, an umbrella group representing conservative and mostly white evangelicals, has offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrests of arsonists. And yesterday, minutes after Charlotte police officials revealed that a fire at the Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church in their city was arson, Mayor Pat McCrory offered a $10,000 reward for information that helps solve the crime.

In yesterday's blaze, no injuries were reported, and the only building lost was a vacant 1903 structure on church grounds that served as the congregation's sanctuary years ago. The old church sits 100 yards from the undamaged new church used by the congregation's 175 members.

"It's painful to see things like this still happening in 1996," said the Rev. Larry Hill, the church's pastor. "Right now we're praying for genuine healing."

Pub Date: 6/08/96

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