clock menu more-arrow no yes

Not all the recent fires at black churches were arson. Here's what we know.

A fire at Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, SC, on June 30. Investigators say the fire was likely not intentionally set.
A fire at Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, SC, on June 30. Investigators say the fire was likely not intentionally set.
Clarendon Fire Department

Since June 21, fires have been reported at six Southern churches that serve mostly African-American congregations. Investigators believe that two of these fires were intentionally set, and the cause of three others is unknown and under investigation.

These fires came to public attention a few days after the shooting that killed nine black members of Charleston's Emanuel AME Church on June 17 — which was itself a reminder of the long history of terrorism against black churches in America. Although church fires are not uncommon — and there is a lot we still don't know about the recent fires, some of which were accidental — many observers are fearful and anxious.

What we know

Since June 21st, there have been at least four mysterious fires at black churches in the South — three of which were likely deliberate. In three cases, law enforcement officers have said that there's evidence that the fire was deliberately set. In one other case, investigators have been unable to determine whether the fire was intentional or not.

Many media reports have referred to fires at "seven churches." But those include two churches that were struck by lightning (one of which was a white church), and another church where the cause of the fire was likely an electrical failure.

Here's what we know about the cases, based on reporting from the Los Angeles Times's Matt Pearce,CNN's Ben Brumfield and Sam Stringer, the Associated Press's Bruce Smith and Meg Kinnard, and local media:

  • June 30: Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina. The historic black church burned down on June 30. A federal law enforcement official told the AP that the fire wasn't intentionally set, and the FBI currently thinks it was probably caused by a lightning strike.
  • June 26: Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina. The mostly black church burned down on June 26. Investigators don't know if it was intentional or an accident, but they "observed no element of criminal intent." The fire has officially been classified as "undetermined" because investigators couldn't rule out the possibility of an accident.
  • June 26: Greater Miracle Apostolic Holiness Church in Tallahassee, Florida. The mostly black church was destroyed by a fire on June 26. It was likely set off by an electrical short, so it's not believed to be arson or a hate crime.
  • June 24: Briar Creek Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. The predominantly black church was burned down on June 24. Investigators are treating the case as arson, but there's no evidence it was a hate crime.
  • June 23: God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. The mostly black church burned down on June 23. The fire is being investigated as an arson, but local and federal law enforcement agents have said there's no evidence yet of a hate crime.
  • June 23: Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Gibson County, Tennessee. This is a mostly white church, and it was struck by lightning on June 23. But it's been widely included in reports of church fires.
  • June 21: College Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. Officials said that someone on June 21 intentionally set fire to a church-owned van and straw near the mostly black church, but the church itself wasn't burned. Investigators have confirmed that the fire was a case of arson. A spokesman for the Knoxville Police Department told local news station WATE that it was being investigated as an act of vandalism rather than a hate crime, because the suspect didn't leave any message or indication of the reason for the crime.

What we don't know

How this compares to general arson rates for churches, including black churches. According to the National Fire Protection Association (via the Los Angeles Times's Matt Pearce), firefighters responded to an average of 1,600 fires at churches a year from 2007 to 2011. That comes out to an average of 31 fires a week.

Sixteen percent of fires at churches and funeral homes (the latter is much less common) were intentionally set. That's an average of five intentional fires a week, or 256 a year — causing an average of three civilian injuries annually.

Both intentional and accidental fires have been declining since the 1980s.

church fires

(Marty Ahrens/National Fire Protection Association)

What the motive of any intentionally-set fire was. Deliberate fires are set for a variety of reasons. Investigators have not come up with suspects or a motive in any of the recent fires.

Whether any of the fires were connected to each other: Some past attacks on black churches, like the 1995 Ku Klux Klan attack on the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, were deliberately coordinated. But an attack can be racially motivated without being the work of a white supremacist organization. In some cases, racism combines with other factors — like alcohol and drugs — to inspire individuals to launch attacks on their own. As the Washington Post reported about three Tennessee arsonists in 1996:

They first tried to burn a tavern where one of the men, Robert Lee Johnson, a 34-year-old construction worker, thought he had been cheated by blacks at a dice game. They failed. "The more they drank, the more they talked," said U.S. Attorney Delk Kennedy in Tennessee. "Then they decided to burn some churches. It was definitely a spur-of-the-moment thing, drunken talk, bravado induced by alcohol. . . . These guys don't think past the next six-pack." The three were convicted of burning two black churches.

When we'll have answers: Law enforcement officials are currently investigating four of the fires, often with assistance from the FBI. We don't know when these investigations will conclude, or whether they'll have enough evidence to determine whether a crime was committed.

In the past, arson cases have often rested on forensic evidence that purported to show a fire was deliberately set. But in recent years, the reliability of those findings has been questioned or discredited.

Why many are concerned

Attacks on black churches have been a frequent form of anti-black terrorism in America: The black church has been a symbol and a gathering place for black America, and that's made it an appealing target for white supremacist terrorists. The Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, where the June massacre happened, was burned in the 19th century after one of its founders planned a slave revolt. In 1964, four young girls were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed. There was a wave of firebombings of black churches in the South in the 1990s, and a black church in Massachusetts was burned the day President Barack Obama was inaugurated.

Burnings of black churches by whites are not uncommon: The current data on church fires doesn't include data for black churches in particular. But we do have some data from the 1990s, when the rash of burnings of black churches prompted the creation of a federal task force. The task force investigated 945 church fires, including 310 black churches (213 of which were in the South).

Law enforcement ultimately arrested 136 people for arson against black churches, a little under two thirds of whom were white; 102 of the suspects — two-thirds white — were arrested for arson against black churches in the South. (Law enforcement agents arrested 431 suspected arsonists overall, including white and black church fires.)

Most of these cases were brought in state court. But sometimes the federal government did end up bringing charges — especially in cases of hate crimes. Fifty-eight percent of federal convictions for church arsons from 1995 to 2000 were for crimes "motivated by bias."

Vox Video: What makes the Charleston shooting terrorism