Skip to comments.Firestorm -- A Review of the 1996 Church Fire Scare
Posted on 05/29/2002 6:17:11 PM PDT by Interesting Times
During the summer of 1996, Americans were deluged with thousands of newspaper, magazine and television reports that racists were torching black churches* throughout the South. This article traces the origins and events of what appears to have been a remarkably effective campaign of disinformation.
*Since few churches have completely white or black memberships, references to 'white' or 'black' churches identify the predominant race of their members.
In late March, The Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR) and the National Council of Churches (NCC) held a press conference to announce a huge increase in arsons against black churches. The Rev. Mac Charles Jones, a CDR board member, categorized the wave of arsons as the result of "a well-organized white-supremacist movement." The CDR released a preliminary report showing an increase in the number of such arsons every year since 1990, and said that all suspects arrested for these crimes have been white.
Though most media reports referred to the CDR as 'an independent group that monitors hate crimes', the organization, whose stated agenda is to work with other 'progressive' groups to "counter right-wing rhetoric and public policy initiatives," is in fact part of the political far left. It has issued a steady stream of statements, reports and interviews over the years claiming that racial terrorism by whites against blacks is on the rise.
In 1989, for example, a Washington Post article entitled "Bombings Called Latest of Racial Crimes," reported that the CDR had detected a sharp increase in racial violence and other crimes by hate groups over the previous few years -- a conclusion not shared by most other observers. In 1994, CDR Program Research Director Loretta J. Ross issued a report called "State of the White Supremacist," which argued that "white supremacy is an ideology that manipulates U.S. politics and affects all relations in American society." That paper also referred to an "increase in violent hate crimes across the nation."
Given the track record and hard ideological edge of the CDR, one might have expected the mainstream media to respond to this latest round of accusations with a grain of salt and some fact checking. With a very few exceptions, this was not to be the case.
The Church Council
The second major player in the church fire campaign was the National Council of Churches, which had been seeking to widen the scope of its political operations. In December of 1995, concerned with the increasing influence of the religious right, the head of the NCC and the heads of six church denominations met in Washington D.C. to map out a counterattack. Also in late 1995, the NCC hired CDR board member Mac Charles Jones as part of an increased organizational emphasis on "racial justice in public life." It was Jones who suggested investigating the topic of black church fires.
The relationship between the NCC churches and CDR predated Jones for example, the United Methodist Church Board of Church and Society had been involved with the CDR for several years. In July of 1995, a church-wide Methodist conference was held on "Christian Ministry in the Midst of Hate and Violence." 'State of the White Supremacist' author Loretta Ross was a featured speaker. According to a Methodist report, Ross "drew parallels between the political agendas of hate groups and 'far right politics'" and proposed action strategies including "leadership development, research, cultivation of the media, and the building of networks that can respond immediately to care for victims and launch educational efforts."
After meeting with two black ministers at the request of NCC general secretary Joan Campbell, President Clinton focused on the church burnings in his June 8 radio address. He proposed a new federal task force to investigate the arsons, and recalled "vivid and painful memories of black churches being burned in my own state when I was a child." The president also stated that "racial hostility is the driving force" behind the fires, and pledged that the federal government would respond with its full power.
A burst of presidential activity followed. On June 14, Clinton invited Southern governors to a White House summit on the church fires. The next day, the BATF and FBI assigned 200 federal agents to the investigation. On June 17, the president assigned James Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to head a multi-agency effort aimed at prevention. On July 11, Clinton told delegates to the NAACP's annual convention that America must stop "the fires of hatred and bigotry." On July 13, Clinton signed into law the 'Church Fire Prevention Act of 1996', which added church arsons to the more than 3,000 types of federal crime already on the books. On August 7, the president signed a spending bill that included $12 million to combat fires at churches with black congregations. Clinton toured the ruins of burned-out black churches on two occasions, including his 50th birthday on Aug 19. On August 29, while accepting his party's nomination to a second term as president, Clinton again referred to the fires, and also condemned the painting of swastikas on the doors of Special Forces troops at Fort Bragg in North Carolina as racially motivated.
Media coverage of the church fires exploded after the President's radio speech. By June 8, over 2,200 newspaper articles on the topic had been printed. Magazine and television reports proclaimed that a new campaign of terror was occurring in the South, comparable to the wave of church burnings and bombings by segregationists during the 1950's and early 1960's. The Los Angeles Sentinel printed an article on June 13 typical of the tone of the coverage entitled "Madmen Setting Fires Of Hatred In South." USA Today ran huge articles on three consecutive days. In pulpits across the country, ministers raised their voices against racial terrorism and took up collections to rebuild the churches.
The vast majority of news accounts reported as a fact that burnings of black churches had dramatically increased. Many also raised the issue of whether conservative politics had helped to create a 'climate of intolerance' conducive to racial terrorism. The Rev. C.T. Vivian, chairman of the CDR, helpfully suggested that "There's only a slippery slope between conservative religious persons and those that are really doing the burning."
Not everyone accepted the claims made by the CDR, NCC, and President Clinton at face value. The day after President Clinton's radio address, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and others reported that no church burning had occurred in Arkansas during Mr. Clinton's childhood, the president's "vivid and painful" memories notwithstanding.
On July 8, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Michael Fumento analyzed the CDR report state by state, and found that it "regularly ignored fires set by blacks and those that occurred in the early part of the decade, and labeled fires as arson that were not -- all in an apparent effort to make black church torchings appear to be escalating." Fumento also reviewed USA Today statistics purporting to show a sharp rise in black church arsons starting in 1994, and pointed out that two of the Southern states USA Today listed hadn't started reporting data until 1993, and a third hadn't until 1995. Naturally, he said, when they did, the number went up. Eliminating these states, the USA Today statistics showed no increase from 1990 to 1995 (numbers for 1996 are skewed by copycat crimes that followed the massive publicity). For 1995, USA Today reported 45 arsons against white churches in the states surveyed in the South, and 27 against black churches, compared to a 4:1 ratio of whites to blacks in the region. Fumento noted that Southern black churches tend to be smaller than white churches, and are therefore proportionally more numerous. They are also more likely to be located in economically depressed areas, older, and made of wood all factors in arson.
In an August 2 letter to the Wall Street Journal, CDR Board President Joann Watson responded to the Fumento article, insisting that "80 black churches were burned between January 1990 and May 1996". Watson did not address Fumento's numerous and specific claims that the CDR had falsified its data, and concluded with the remark, "We think that epidemic or not, even one church torched because of racial hatred is one too many."
On August 14, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) wrote the NCC a public letter accusing it of promoting "a great church-fire hoax." NCC general secretary Joan Campbell expressed "stunned disbelief" at the accusation, and said that since "roughly the same number" of white and black churches had been burned, racism was evident.
On August 27, James K.Glassman wrote in a Washington Post editorial that President Clinton had "obscured the scandal of the FBI files by promoting the phony tale of a wave of racist church burnings."
In mid-September, the Army officially confirmed that the painting of swastikas denounced as racist by President Clinton August 29th at the Democratic Convention had actually been done by a black soldier. Television and newspaper accounts had reported that the primary suspect was black as far back as late June.
Following the Money
Clinton's June 8 radio address also marked the turning point for the fund-raising effort. On June 10, after flying 38 pastors to Washington, the NCC held a news conference to distribute a revised and updated CDR study on the burnings. Eight charitable foundations, including the Ford Foundation, pledged contributions within 24 hours.
In mid-June, the National Council of Churches ran full-page advertisements in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other papers soliciting contributions for the newly created Burned Churches Fund. Readers were invited to "stand up against racism and help rebuild the burned churches." Though not mentioned in the ads, the spokesman and administrator for the fund was reported to be one Don Rojas, formerly employed as Director of Communications for the People's Revolutionary Government of Grenada.
I called the Burned Churches Fund hotline in mid-July, to ask for a written breakdown of how the money would be used, and was told that "we're just set up to take donations." The woman I spoke to was unable to tell me whom to contact for information or written materials, but assured me that "all the money is going directly to the churches."
On August 9, a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Burning Need" reported that a year before, the NCC had been "struggling to raise money to fund ambitious programs designed to combat racism." In the past year the NCC had submitted "at least three 'racial justice' proposals seeking $1.9 million in funding from nonprofit groups including the Ford Foundation. Ford and the others turned the proposals down." Now, the Journal reported, the NCC "has managed to raise nearly $9 million in a major fund drive, and contributions continue to pour in at about $100,000 a day". The Journal also noted that "by couching the burnings as a 'national disaster' orchestrated by 'organized white-supremacist groups' and by buying provocative full-page advertisements in four major newspapers, the NCC has raised more money more quickly than it has for any previous cause."
The total value of funds, materials, and insurance available to rebuild the churches at the time of the Journal article exceeded $18 million, not including the value of services and labor pledged by the United Way, Promise Keepers, Habitat for Humanity, unions, students, and others. The NCC itself estimated that for about $8.5 million each of the 43 churches on its list could be rebuilt and upgraded with improvements such as day-care centers and recreation rooms.
The Journal reported that at least $3.5 million of the excess funds would be "earmarked for what Mac Charles Jones, a NCC official calls 'program advocacy' -- seminars and other forums that will not only address racism but matters of 'economic justice' and 'interlocking oppressions from gender to homophobia.'" Other sources had previously indicated that large sums of money would also be given directly to the CDR and other leftist groups. The Journal article went on to question the appropriateness of the NCC's use of funds collected from donors who thought they were helping to rebuild churches.
New fires made headlines across the country in June and July, and the recently dispatched army of federal agents began to arrest suspects. One was a 13-year old white girl who claimed to be a Satanist. Another was a black man who had hoped to generate business for his brother's construction company. As it became clear to investigators that no widespread conspiracy connected the fires, the intensity of the media coverage began to lessen, and its tone became a shade more moderate. Most of the later reports suggested that those who burned churches appeared to have a variety of motives. In mid-August, two former Klansmen were convicted of two 1995 arsons. This revelation made national news for two or three days, but by September the media firestorm was essentially over.
By September 20, federal officials were able to report that 44 individuals had been charged with setting fire to black churches in the South, of whom 16 were themselves, black. Some, but by no means all of the 28 white suspects were believed to have been racially motivated. Nearly half of all the suspects were under the age of 18.
The truth of the matter appears to be that a very small number of black churches are burned each year by white racists, and that the rate has been relatively static. Prior to the publicity campaign, the number of racially motivated church arsons in the South, a region with a population of over 90 million, was probably less than 10 per year. By comparison, more than 620 buildings were burned during the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles alone. After those riots, in which over 50 people died, many on the political left had avoided placing blame on the rioters. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, for example, responded that America "must invest in hope, or pay the price of despair." In contrast, the church arsons were condemned without qualification or excuse all across the political spectrum.
So where does this leave us today? Since the overwhelming majority of news accounts presented the wave of racist terror as a fact, public belief is almost certainly high. The CDR, the NCC, and President Clinton have benefited politically, and the CDR and NCC have also reaped enormous financial rewards. The media has shown little interest in reviewing its handling of this topic. Overall, the church fire campaign was by any measure a success.
There is no shortage of groups willing to engage in scare campaigns, or of politicians willing to exploit them. We can expect to see more sensational claims, some of which will inevitably be picked up and amplified by the media. Their destructive impact can be limited if we take the following steps -- first, identify the bias of the source. Second, seek out the underlying facts. Third, stop supporting those who deal in disinformation.
Until these things are done, our differences and our fears will continue to be used against us.
Nearly six years later, the church fires disinformation campaign stands as an excellent example of leftist media tactics.
It's been a pleasure working with you and reading your stuff lo these many years.
Worth another read. Or, in my case, a first read.
I gave this to my minister, curious to see if he was at all bothered by the NCC bearing false witness for political and financial gain. He wasn't interested, except to caution me against posting it on the bulletin board. That, you see, would be 'divisive'.
Seems every time I read about the United Methodist Church anymore, they are embracing more and more liberal ideology. I'm about ready to drop UMC and become a Catholic. If my grandmother hadn't been such a rebel and left the Catholic church, I would be one now, I reckon.
No help there.
Where do you think he learned that 'divisive' means 'opinions liberals dislike'?
That's if we win.
Otherwise it'll be "The Decade of Enlightenment."
The Times or the Post?
The Washington Times is conservative -- I'd expect to see that heading in the Post, aka "Pravda on the Potomac."
...in the clintonoids' version of history, the .... economy was the worst in half a century till Bill and the FOB came to our rescue...
The bad guys own most of the opinion-forming apparatus: TV, movies, newspapers, education, church leadership, musicians, even cartoonists.
This is slowly changing (Rush, Fox News, the Net) but it takes time and effort to reverse decades of relentless propaganda.