We are still burning churches

Confederate flags came down, or will soon come down, from above state buildings. The Supreme Court upheld human rights thrice over. Saturday, Bree Newsome climbed up a flagpole on the South Carolina capitol grounds and so beat those working within to the chase.

We have some cause to celebrate, even if some of our late victories came at dreadful cost. But every silver lining comes equipped with clouds. In the past week, at least six primarily-black churches have burned at the hands of persons unknown.

In Charlotte, N.C., authorities say a June 24 fire at Briar Creek Baptist Church was the result of arson and is being investigated as a possible hate crime. NBC News reported that more than 75 firefighters were needed to extinguish the three-alarm fire, and an hour passed before the blaze was under control. Two firefighters received medical treatment for heat-related injuries. The church sustained $250,000 in damage, including a collapsed ceiling and significant damage to a space used for a children’s summer camp. The sanctuary was spared, sustaining smoke damage along with the gymnasium.

A June 23 fire at God’s Power Church of Christ, a predominantly Black church in Macon, Ga., has been ruled as arson, although there is no indication it was a hate crime. As was reported in theMacon Telegraph, the front doors of the church were locked and wired shut when authorities arrived, but a side door was unlocked. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives was called, as is the case with church fires, and authorities also noted that electronics and other air conditioning equipment had been stolen from the church in two burglaries. A $10,000 reward is available through the Georgia Arson Hotline for information leading to the arrest of an arsonist.

We don’t have all the information yet to count each of the six as an act of white terrorism against one of the few institutions that white Americans have permitted to black Americans. With numbers so small, almost anything could come down to a coincidental combination of fires. The investigations have not yet ruled every burning an arson. People do burn buildings out of simple youthful stupidity. I would like for it to work out that way and for none of these arsons to come as responses to the late move against celebration of the Confederacy. I hope we all would.

The world rarely bends to our hopes. The arc of history only bends toward justice if we bend it. However much I would love to have it all wrong, I expect we will soon learn that at least some set these fires as acts of terror. If we do, I have no doubt that the usual suspects will ascribe each to mental illness and lone wolves. That we just had a calamitous attack launched in defense of white supremacy will fall out of memory as such things usually do. We might even have a rendition of one of the classics of that genre.

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

Victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

On September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan left at least fifteen sticks of dynamite, and a timer, under the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama . They did this on a Sunday and put the dynamite beneath the front steps. Four girls died. Twenty-two others came away wounded. We can only guess their motives, just as we can only guess what drove Dylann Roof to his own isolated incident indicative of mental illness. William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review, which fancied itself a journal of respectable conservative opinion as much then as now, had this to say:

The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur – of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion, especially the ten-minute fuse (surely a white man walking away from the church basement ten minutes earlier would have been noticed?). And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice.

Damn the bombers; they harmed the cause of white power. But since no decent, conservative white person would do something so horrifying as that, the guilty parties must come in the color of skin we most associate with criminality. By linking the bombing with communism, the Review further implied that its “crazed Negro” worked on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement. The American Right had long understood it as a communist outfit, after all. But failing all of those, Buckley fell back on the tried and true insistence that the victims had it coming. Whether they themselves stood against the white-imposed, white-dominated status quo or took their cues as past generations imagined rebellious slaves had from the perfidious white reformers, they had brought the violence down on their own heads. Everything worked just fine until Earl Warren integrated the schools.

Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

Five years earlier, Buckley penned this editorial, parts of which could have come from Calhoun’s own pen:

In some parts of the South, the White community merely intends to prevail-that is all. It means to prevail on any issue on which there is corporate disagreement between Negro and White. The White community will take whatever measures are necessary to make certain that it has its way.

[…]

The central question that emerges-and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal-is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes -the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race . It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro : but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists . The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.

Confronted on the subject in 1989, Buckley affirmed that he believed it as much right then as in the 1950s. His publication continues on in that proud tradition even without him:

Countless people were heartbroken by the news of Wednesday’s massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, but conservative writer Mona Charen seems to have been doubly upset. Writing in National Review, she complained that the prospect that the tragedy could be politically exploited by Democrats was “even more depressing” than the actions of the killer. “The heinousness of a person who can sit for an hour studying the Bible and then open fire is unfathomable,” Charen wrote. “Even more depressing, if that’s possible, is my suspicion—and I truly hope I’m wrong—that this event will play a role in the 2016 presidential campaign.”

Later, when the crassness of the phrase “even more depressing” in this context was pointed out to her, Charen amended the sentence. But her article’s flaws run much deeper. Charen takes a curiously blinkered view of how atrocities are politically exploited, citing examples of political haymaking that pale in comparison to those who respond to racist murders by downplaying the role of bigotry.

Mona Charen had it in her to write this in 2015. In 2015, a white man can walk into a black church and murder the people gathered there. In 2015, we still burn churches. None of these deeds requires a white hood to complete, though men in hoods have done their share of burning, shooting, and lynching. All speak to the persistence of the ancient faith of the men who once wore them or who come to work in expensive suits, as well as the men with whips and chains before them. It remains one of the chief issues in our politics. Pretending otherwise will not make it go away.

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