There have been at least six reported fires at black churches in the week following the mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, invoking painful memories of similar historical assaults on black churches.
Attacks on black churches have been historically deployed by white supremacists to terrorize black communities and impose racist laws and policies on African Americans. These types of attacks — not just on churches, but on homes as well — were so common in Birmingham, Alabama, during the 1950s and ’60s that the city received the nickname “Bombingham.”
SPLC has not yet confirmed how many of this past week’s fires were arson and hate crimes. Still, it’s hard not to recall the long history of such attacks.
Black churches were sanctuaries for black Americans — and threats to white power
Historically, black churches are not just houses of worship — they have also acted as sanctuaries from racism and organizational hubs for civil rights rallies. Many of the civil rights leaders of the past few decades have even come from churches, including Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
White supremacists throughout American history often saw these churches as threats, making them prime targets for those who wanted to terrorize and maintain control of black communities and enforce slavery and segregation.
“If you want to get rid of a number of black people, you go to where they congregate — and that was churches,” Gerald Horne, a civil rights historian at the University of Houston, said.
As the Washington Post’s Sarah Kaplan explained, Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church was started in 1816 by Morris Brown, a founding pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who was fed up with the racism he encountered in other churches in the area.
The church hosted some of the prominent black activists of the time. Denmark Vesey, a founding member of the church, at one point attempted to lead one of the nation’s most famous failed slave uprisings, which would have involved more than 9,000 black slaves. But the revolt was foiled when several slaves turned Vesey in, leading to his capture, a trial, and hanging.
White leaders blamed the attack on the Emanuel AME Church, saying it helped foster the attacks. They instituted harsh laws against black churches, including a ban on all-black services. The congregation was then dispersed, and the church was burned. (The congregation would continue to meet in secret.)
In many ways, the Emanuel AME Church’s experience represented the history of black churches in general: it was used to evade the systemic racism of the era, and it was attacked by white leaders who wanted to keep their racist policies in place. “That is a microcosm of how and why churches have become targeted,” Horne said.
These types of attacks continued through the 19th and 20th centuries, including a wave of firebombings of black churches in the South in the 1990s and a burning of a black church in Massachusetts the day President Barack Obama was inaugurated, as the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf reported. But perhaps the most well-known attack was in Birmingham, where a bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church left four girls dead.
Source: Vox.com |