Sometimes a thread of hope can be found in the fabric of tragedy suffered by others. Recently, many were grateful to hear officials report that a fire that destroyed the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, S.C. — about 50 miles north of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston — was not the result of a hate-inspired arsonist.
Finding no evidence of criminal intent prompted a sigh of relief. Learning that weather caused the fire convinced some that America has advanced beyond the days when progress in the affairs of African Americans was begrudged and led to the commission of cowardly crimes performed by those who sympathized with what the Confederate flag represents symbolically.
However, that sigh of relief that felt so good and gave hope that things are getting better diverted attention from the Mount Zion AME Church tragedy. It seems reasonable to assume that some of the painful memories that haunted the church’s past were reviewed when news of the incident spread to members of the congregation. And while investigators did not discover fresh evidence of arson, the Mount Zion AME Church in 1995 was burned to the ground by two young white men with ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
Shouldn’t buildings enshrined as places for religious assembly be free of murder, threats of murder and destruction? Ironically, the investigators’ report about Mount Zion AME’s fire gave hope that America is waking to a new era. But, the members of Mount Zion AME and other predominantly black churches flecked across the nation must persevere with memories of murders, bombings and fires that challenge their sense of safety and well being.
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Moreover, after observing the dignity exhibited by the survivors of the victims of the Emanuel AME Church massacre, it seems appropriate to consider why anyone would want to damage a predominantly black church? In the article “Why racists target black churches,” Sarah Kaplan and Justin Moyer wrote, black churches have always been “a symbol of hope in the darkness of American racism and a source of leadership, political and religious, in the African American community.”
From a political standpoint, the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress — Hiram Revels — was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. From a religious standpoint, professor Laurie Maffly-Kipp in the award-winning digital library collection “The Church in the Southern Black Community,” indicated that clergy within certain denominations actively promoted the idea that all Christians were equal in the sight of God, a message that provided hope and sustenance to slaves and opposed the idea of “heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race....”
Historically, many predominantly black churches and their leaders have served as “instruments of protest,” rebelling against laws, practices and policies that deprived blacks of their rights as American citizens. With the current increase in hate inspired fires in predominantly black churches in southern states, we can speculate that calls to remove the Confederate battle flag from capitol grounds in the South are instigating a racial backlash.
Future events that relegate Confederate battle flag displays to museums would right some of the wrongs in America's history. If that happens, should we expect more hate inspired bombings, burnings and murders?
Let’s work together racially and construct a world free of hate crimes.
Roger C. Williams Jr., Ed.D., is a retired principal, counselor and instrumental music teacher. He lives in Lee's Summit. To reach him, send email to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.