A conspiracy of timidity

June 14, 1996|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Federal investigators are reluctant to say a conspiracy is involved in the recent wave of arson attacks on black churches, but there is. There is a conspiracy of silence.

There is also a conspiracy of denial, a conspiracy of timidity and ++ a conspiracy of permissiveness toward racism. To find the culprits, start by looking in a mirror.

More than 30 black churches have been destroyed since January, 1995, before major media or national politicians gave the problem the national attention it deserves. The Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal, an anti-bigotry watchdog group, says more than 80 churches have been torched since 1990, 28 of them in South Carolina alone.

You don't need to act consciously to contribute to the atmosphere. All it takes for evil to triumph, as a wise man once said, is for good people to do nothing.

Critics were quick to pile on to the Rev. Al Sharpton and other black New York leaders last December after a deranged black man shot up and set afire a Harlem clothing store owned by a white Jewish man, killing seven. The black leaders neither pulled the trigger nor set the fire, but it was widely agreed that their overheated rhetoric in a ''buy black'' campaign against white merchants amounted to the moral equivalency of a conspiracy. It inflamed the atmosphere that encouraged the atrocity on Harlem's 125 Street.

Importance institution

One does not need to throw the Molotov cocktail that sets a black church on fire to contribute to that conspiracy, either. Talk of ''copycat'' crimes or ''troubled youths'' does not erase the responsibility we all have to discourage the racial resentments that can lead others, whether they are sane or deranged, to take out their rage against black America's most important institution, the black church.

Even in the gloomiest days of slavery, the black church was something, often the only thing black people were allowed to call their own. They took full advantage of it. They used the church to lift up their spirits, strengthen their families, enrich their culture and organize their politics.

Every major movement African-Americans have known, from the abolitionist movement to the black political empowerment movement, is rooted in the black church. Even as we black Americans move beyond the black church in pursuit of new corporate, political, educational and economic leaders, we can never leave it.

With that in mind, the seeming irrationality of firebombing black tTC churches suddenly takes on an eerie and cruel rationality. Historically, black churches always have come under attack not during times of black community weakness but rather when it was showing its greatest strength, posing its greatest challenge to white supremacy.

Ever since the Ku Klux Klan rose up during Reconstruction to put black folks ''back in their place,'' black churches, symbols of black power, were favorite targets of opportunity for cowardly haters. Dozens were torched during the civil-rights reforms of the 1950s and 1960s. More than 30 burned in Mississippi alone during the great voter-registration drives of the early 1960s. The shameful Sunday morning bombing of a black church in Birmingham, killing four little girls as they were putting their choir robes on, helped earned that Southern steel city the nickname ''Bombing-ham.''

No one needed evidence of ''an organized conspiracy'' behind those bombings. The poisonously permissive atmosphere was obvious.

People in power gave permission, actively and passively, to any loser with a grudge, sane or deranged, to take out his grievance on black churches, the community's most important symbol of pride and power. The rise of black-church firebombings may reflect a similar poisonous atmosphere today. Indifference to racism has surged. Everyone seems more concerned with dodging guilt than accepting responsibility.

I have nothing against self-help. Black folks have known about self-help since the first of us was brought here to Jamestown colony -- before the Mayflower.

Plenty for whites to do

But when the empowered preach self-help to less-powered minorities, it implies that there is nothing for white people to do. There is plenty for white people to do. First and foremost, they can join the fight against white racism.

The church arsons should serve as a valuable wake-up call. If we Americans share anything across racial lines -- from the Christian Coalition to Operation PUSH -- it is our consensus of outrage over these arsons and our appreciation for the positive, life-affirming values black churches represent.

Concerned individuals like Melanie Skinner, a white woman in Charlotte, North Carolina, showed that. She lives near the 92-year-old Mathews Murkland Presbyterian Church, which burned the night of June 6. Afterward she placed a flower on the steps of the burned building before attending Sunday services there with her mother and sister. About a third of the crowd that filled the church was white, including deacons from across the city.

Problems are opportunities in disguise. Americans may yet draw new hope from this tragedy. In most places, Sunday morning is still one of the most segregated hours of the week. The tragedy of black-church arsons is pulling together church and civil rights like no other issue since the 1960s.

They must not be left to march alone. We Americans have more than enough conspiracies to divide us up. We need to conspire to bring ourselves together.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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