In the United States, black churches are burning again.
At least seven historically African-American churches have gone up in flamesacross the American South in the last few weeks, stoking anxieties among parishioners and activists nationwide that, in the wake of the mass shooting carried out by a white terrorist in South Carolina last month, attacks on thelifeblood of many black communities are on the rise—a notion that activists have helped push into the national spotlight with hashtags like#WhoIsBurningBlackChurches.
Attacks on predominantly African-American churches are a long, sad feature of American history—and not just the pre-Civil War heyday of American slavery. As the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf notes, white supremacists have targeted black churches for most of American history. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site of white supremacist Dylann Roof’s shooting spree, for example, was burned to the ground after founder Denmark Vesey was implicated in a slave revolt plot in 1822. A century later, the 1963 bombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church marked a turning point for the modern civil rights movement. It wasn’t, until more recently, when nearly 145 churches were torchedacross the South between 1995 and 1996, that Congress passed the Church Arson Prevention Act, led by then-President Bill Clinton’s formation of the National Church Arson Task Force, to examine the roots of the crisis.
Outside of particularly vicious cycles of racially motivated arson, church burnings are more common than you might think. A 2013 report from the National Fire Prevention Association found that there were an average of 31 church fires a weekbetween 2007 and 2011, with some 16 percent deemed intentional, though according to a 2015 report, overall church fires (and, in turn, suspicious or incendiary fires) have been on the decline since the 1980s.
It’s unclear if this spate of church fires is somehow tied to the also-recent national conversations around racism (and, tangentially, the legacy of the Confederate flag) sparked by the South Carolina shootings. At least three have been confirmed cases of arson, although authorities stress that these fires are not connected. Given the frequency of church fires illustrated by the NFPA report and the relatively low rate of arson, chances are this wave of burnings doesn’t represent a kind of white supremacist backlash to the national solidarity wrought by the shooting in Charleston. But for African-American communities in the U.S., the perceived uptick in church fires in the aftermath of Roof’s attack on the Emanuel AME Church cuts deep. After all, churches aren’t just houses of worship: They’re the heart and soul of historically black neighborhoods. And in the aftermath of Charleston, old traumas of the past two centuries are rearing their ugly heads.
Historically, black churches have been the only institutions of “freedom” for African Americans post-enslavement. According to the late religious scholar C. Eric Lincoln, “freedom” from the very beginning of the black experience in America (apart from freedom from servitude and bondage) centered on “the absence of any restraint which might compromise one’s responsibility to God,” rather than the earthly political and economic liberties that most Americans take for granted. As a result, the black church became “the first theater in the black community,” Lincoln wrote in his book, The Black Church in the African-American Experience. “The Black church was in search of transcendence, not a mere emptying of the emotions, but an enduring fellowship with God in which the formal worship service provided the occasion for particular periods of intimacy.” A church was an oasis, then, from the horrors of economic bondage and social persecution, an essential safe space for African Americans beyond all others.
As a result, the church is deeply embedded into the African-American experience, providing economic assistance, space for political organization and social solidarity, and even acting as a source of mental health counseling. W.E.B. DuBoisrecognized this in his timeless work The Souls of Black Folk, where he noted that “the Negro church of to-day is the social centre of Negro life in the United States and the most characteristic expression of African character.” A rigorous data-driven sociological re-examination of DuBois’ work in The North Star: A Journal of African-American Religious History confirms this. “Just as Du Bois acknowledged the Black Church as the social center of Black life, studies suggest that it continues to serve as a vanguard in the Black community due to its dual sacred and secular roles,” sociologist Sandra Barnes writes. “The Church meets religious needs, serves as an educational arena, provides economic aid, and provides sanctuary from discrimination, racism, and other stresses. As the oldest organization owned, financed, and controlled by Blacks, it also cultivates Black identity.”
The deployment of arson by anti-segregationists and white supremacists throughout American history has served as a tool to quash those communities. This is nothing new: Attacks on religious institutions have been tools of social control for as long as religion’s existed. Consider the now-infamous desecration of Jewish synagogues across Europe during the 1930s and ’40s by Adolf Hitler’s thugs, a way to culturally castrate German Jews and deprive them of the essential institutions of social solidarity. More recently, the Islamic State has waged war on ancient artwork and temples across Iraq and Syria as a way to subjugate ethnic minorities like Arab Christians and the long-persecuted Yazidis.
But the central role of the church in African-American experience makes their destruction, intentional or otherwise, deeply traumatic for black communities, especially when anxiety over racial tensions is at a high. While the South Carolina mass murder has been unequivocally labeled an act of “terrorism” by many observers (but not, let’s remember, FBI director James Comey), every burning church inflicts trauma on the African-American community it serves. Considering recent studies have shown racism’s negative long-term effects on health on anintergenerational scale to African Americans, these burning churches inflict serious psychocultural trauma on black communities. “Racially motivated arsons, though not successful in destroying the souls of Black communities, managed nonetheless to inflict a significant amount of harm on churches, their congregants, and surrounding community,” explained Michele M. Simms-Paris in the Journal of Constitutional Law. “In the end, the message of racial hate was burned into the memories of African-Americans and revisits us every time one of our churches burn…. To burn a Black Church is to conjure up images of past and future fires set to harm members of Black communities.”
This is why so many African Americans across the U.S. have reacted with indignation and outrage over a perceived absence of coverage of church burnings. Arson or not, each burning steeple, each smoldering pew, represents a grim reminder of the horrors of American history, a source of racially specific PTSD for generations of African Americans still coping with desegregation and the long struggle of the modern civil rights movement. Each burning church is a reminder that the struggle for racial equality is far from over.