Local, state, and federal law enforcement officials are investigating a possible hate crime after a predominantly black church was burned Tuesday night in Greenville, Mississippi, and vandalized with “Vote Trump” on the church exterior.
“This act is a direct assault on people’s right to freely worship,” Mayor Errick Simmons said during a press conference Wednesday. “We are going to investigate the matter with all deliberate speed and will not rest until the perpetrator is arrested and prosecuted.”
The Delta Daily News reported that the fire at Hopewell Baptist Church took place around 9:15 pm. Officials say no one was injured. Most of the damage to the church was confined to the sanctuary, with slight water and smoke damage sustained in the kitchen and pastor’s office, according to WREG, a local news station.
Officials have yet to conclude whether the fire was an act of arson. But the message spray-painted on the burned bricks is drawing attention to a history of racist violence that has been amplified over the course of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Burning a black church is a political act
When asked about the racial climate in Greenville, a predominantly black town in Washington County, Simmons noted that the n-word was written near the town waterfront on September 11, but that the town was largely no different from any other.
His major concern was how the attack on a local church was an attack on one of African Americans’ cultural centers, and by extension an attack “on the black community.”
“The black church has always been a symbol of the black community for assembly,” Simmons said, “but, more importantly, for communication and strategy with regards to our rights and civil liberties that have been deprived of African Americans.”
Black churches have always been about more than spirituality. For generations, black churches have served as sources of refuge from and resistance to the racism pervading America’s Christian pulpits: “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation ... that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said during an interview with Meet the Press in 1960.
The reason: Churches in the US — like neighborhoods and schools — have a long history of being segregated. And because the church served dual religious and political roles for African-American churches, these places of worship were primary sites of racial terrorism, particularly arson.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was burned down in 1822 after Denmark Vesey, a founding member of the church, was caught plotting a slave rebellion. More than a century later, black churches were regularly burned and bombed across the South to thwart meetings during the civil rights movement, with Birmingham, Alabama, notoriously nicknamed “Bombingham.” Last year, concerns were raised when four black churches were mysteriously burned (three of which were likely deliberate) after a gunman shot and killed black parishioners at Mother Emanuel in Charleston.
Even today, as the church becomes less of a cornerstone of political organizing for the movement for black lives than it was for the civil rights movement, the institution remains significant for African Americans, and, as evidenced by the church burning in Greenville, people attempting to intimidate them.
Threat of violent voter intimidation has become a cornerstone of the 2016 election
Greenville Police Chief Delando Wilson noted, however, that violent voter intimidation was key to considering this church burning as a hate crime.
“We feel that the quote that was placed on the church is basically an intimidation of someone’s right to vote whatever way they choose to vote,” Wilson said. “To me, it does try to push your beliefs onto someone else. And it’s a church, a predominantly black church. And no one has the right to intimidate someone into the way they want to decide to vote.”
Still, concerns about violence leading up to Election Day have been growing. As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp explained, Donald Trump’s talk of a rigged election in recent weeks may only inspire more violence:
Basically, Trump is encouraging his voters, already anxious about a possibly “rigged” election, to go out to polling places full of non-Trump voters and serve as amateur election police. These people can’t go into polling places, legally speaking. But they can congregate around polling places, showing up and harassing voters waiting in line.
It’s a situation you can easily imagine escalating out of control.
And Trump’s supporters are welcoming the confrontation. According to Matt Viser and Tracy at the Boston Globe, a 61-year-old Trump supporter said that he plans to engage in “racial profiling” in order to make those voters “a little bit nervous.”
Politico also reported that neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and leaders in the alt-right movement are currently doing their best to act as poll watchers and are organizing to keep African Americans at home in a year when early voting is down in some key states.
No one has yet been identified as a suspect in the Greenville church fire, and no surveillance footage is available. But it’s still clear that this small church in Mississippi is the latest symbol of some of the country’s worst fears about the threats of violence looming over this year’s presidential election.