Random mischief by racist hoodlums


"EVERY PROBLEM known to man has been known before," reads the sign on the wall of the Beulah Baptist Church in Hopkins, South Carolina. It was hung at the turn of the century, when white parishioners, fleeing the arrival of a handful of blacks, burned the church down.

Then, as now, this bit of Ecclesiastes quieted Christian fears by assuring them there is just one devil in the world, and his name is Jim Crow. To name something is somehow to neutralize it. As one spiritual has it, "Name him, chain him, call him out and shame him."

Although arsonists haven't touched it in 100 years, Beulah shares this credo with those Southern churches that have recently burned. The Rev. Gardner Taylor shamed the devil on the Charlie Rose show: "I think this conspiracy goes back to Reconstruction, Nathan Bedford Forrest's Ku Klux Klan and on to the civil rights revolution."

Taylor is earnest, and it's easy to see why. Black church burnings are a long-standing symbol of racial enmity in America. Indeed, it takes hard work not to see these fires as confirmation that, for black people, the world hasn't changed much. Yet, no matter how familiar this all may seem, it's not actually something new.

Not that simple

On Super Bowl Sunday last year, according to reports, Robert Johnson was playing cards in the back room of Sweety Peety, the local tavern in Columbia, Tennessee. Drunk and losing, he made up his mind he was being cheated. So he and two buddies planted a burning cross on the lawn of Sweety Peety. They fire-bombed Friendship Missionary Church, then did the same to Canaan Methodist.

As terrible as this story is, some specifics make it less simple than it might first seem: Sweety Peety is black-owned. Friendship Missionary is in another county. Canaan Methodist is in another town. Robert Johnson and his friends were arrested after the fires and are serving time in jail.

In the South of Johnson's father, the local tavern in Columbia woud not have been black-owned. Johnson wouldn't have needed to drive miles to another county to plant his bombs. He wouldn't have been arrested. He wouldn't have been jailed.

No large-scale conspiracy

All this is to say the white vandals committing these crimes are doing so in isolation, without the cultural or political sanction they could have taken for granted a generation ago. Compare Johnson to Byron de la Beckwith, Medgar Evers's killer, who is still proclaiming his innocence and the eventual triumph of the Aryan nation. The recent fires are not powerful political acts but the random mischief of a bunch of hoodlums who are racists, to be sure, but who don't have the power to carry out any large-scale conspiracy.

The fires prove precisely how the South has changed, and how poor, white, uneducated men like Robert Johnson are finding the world they inherited fast shrinking around them.

"They have become so alienated," Andrew Young said. "The people who are burning churches are, for the most part, people who ought to be in college, but whom society has left behind." The story here may be not the victims, but the victimizers.

But the old civil rights establishment has too much at stake to refocus the discussion. One crucial piece of information has been studiously avoided: one-third of those indicted in the burnings have been black.

Jesse Jackson, sensing the damage this could inflict on the spin, flew to Tennessee to defend a minister suspected by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents of torching his own church. To admit the possibility of his guilt would dispel the notion of blacks as perfect victims, to cease playing upon whatever sentiments this country has toward the faithful, long-suffering darky.

It is the companion piece to blacks as violent marauders, though neither stereotype takes account of the human middle where most blacks reside.

The civil rights leaders who have resurfaced in the wake of these fires have been given a second chance at power. Thirty years ago, they earned moral capital as modern-day founding fathers. But these men and women have been oddly displaced.

Pushed out by Louis Farrakhan's nationalism and Colin Powell's Republicanism, these old-school integrationists have been scrambling for a guidebook to the new game. Now the end of race-based congressional districts threatens to cripple their authority permanently. These fires now allow them to say, "Leave the driving to us."

Righteous language

When did anyone last hear from Roger Wilkins or Nelson Rivers of the NAACP? When did anyone last see Andrew Young and Joe Smitherman, mayor of Selma, arm in arm? When did anyone last hear such phrases as, "They can burn the church, but they can't burn the faith" or "Ain't no Nazi gonna turn us around"? For all their errors in making this episode into something it isn't, to the civil rights leaders there is a virtue in finding such righteous language once again.

The world of the civil rights leaders is a better world than that of the Republicans or the nationalists, and if this, episode helps us return to it, it might be worth the spin.

Cinque Henderson has written for Newsweek and The Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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