When six churches with predominantly African-american congregations went up in flames following the Charleston church massacre, authorities were suspicious and the public rushed to judgment, but none of the fires showed any evidence of being a hate crime and only two are suspected arsons.

“There’s no apparent connection, nothing to say they are connected,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, “It’s speculation…”

Potok said that the most recent hate crime attacks on religion have been on Jewish synagogues and Islamic mosques. The church fires sparked mass speculation on social media, going viral with the hashtag #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches.

It’s a natural reaction “because of the potent political message it sends when groups such as the Klan commit these acts. That explains the visceral reaction,” Philadelphia-based writer and activist David Love told the media. Writing for the Atlanta Blackstar, Love noted that since the days of slavery, white supremacists have tagged African-american churches because they are “a pillar of the Black community, the center for leadership and institution building, education, social and political development and organizing to fight oppression…”

“That’s the goal, is to instill fear and to draw attention so that people don’t forget,” he said.

Love told CNN that “a healthy dose of skepticism” is a good thing, but that each case should be carefully analyzed.

Suspicion was understandable in the aftermath of the murders of 9 people in the Emanuel AME Church by a white supremacist.  In addition, there is a history of attacks on predominantly African-american churches in the South, especially during the Civil Rights Era.  The most prominent and well-known attack was the September 15, 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed 4 little girls and injured 22 others.  Four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted a minimum of 15 sticks of dynamite attached to timing devices beneath the church’s front steps.  The FBI concluded that the bombing was perpetrated by four known KKK members and segregationists:  Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry.  But only one of the men were prosecuted at the time and not until 1977.  Chambliss was convicted of 1st degree murder of 11-year-old Carol Denise McNair. Herman Cash died in 1994 and was never charged.   Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry were convicted of 4 counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison in 2001 and 2002, respectively.  Experts say that the church bombing increased support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

In the fires that showed evidence of arson, the Briar Creek Road Church in Charlotte suffered fire damage to its classrooms, but not the main sanctuary.  Arson is also suspected at the College Hill Seventh Day Adventist Church in Knoxville, TN, but investigators believe it is just a case of general vandalism.  A van belonging to the church was burned in the parking lot and bales of straw were used to set a fire at the church’s doors.

The South Carolina Mt. Zion AME Church is suspected to have been caused by lightning. The FBI has been working with the National Weather Service to determine whether the heavy storms in the area contributed to the fire.  A forensic report of lightning strikes shows four strikes near the church that night.  The entire building was gutted by flames.

According to the National Fire Protection Agency, only 1 in 6 churches fires is intentional.

Other Southern church fires that have occurred since the mass shooting:

  • The Greater Miracle Apostolic in Tallahassee, FL was ruled an accident caused by a tree limb falling on a power line.
  • The Glover Grovery Baptist Church in SC was ruled undetermined.
  • The God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, GA was ruled undetermined, but is a suspected arson.
  • The Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Tennessee was likely caused by a lightning strike.

Firefighters have battled more than 1,700 religious institution fires per year between 2007 and 2011.  These figures also include funeral homes and religiously affiliated schools.

According to a 2013 report from the NFPA:

  • 1/3rd of the fires were caused by cooking devices.
  • 1/4 started in the kitchen.
  • 10% of the fires were caused by electrical lines or lightning.
  • 16% were intentionally set.

The number of fires at religious institutions is actually down from pre-1980 numbers, when twice as many fires occurred each year on average.

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