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Roach
09-02--2006, 02:35 PM
Taken from The Times website





Churches burn as 'night riders' bring fear back to Deep South

By Tom Baldwin
Spectre of Ku Klux Klan is revived by nine arson attacks in deep South in a week

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THEY came under cover of darkness like the “night riders” of the old Ku Klux Klan. They drove down the back roads of rural Alabama, looking for wooden churches in forest clearings. When they found them, they kicked in their doors and set them alight.
Four Baptist churches scattered ten or twenty miles around the tiny town of Boligee, near the Mississippi border, were burnt in this manner on Tuesday night. All had black congregations.
NI_MPU('middle');Last Friday five churches in Bibb County, farther to the east, were destroyed or badly damaged by fire. Of those, four had predominately white congregations and the fifth was mainly black.
The FBI confirmed yesterday that it was investigating whether the string of arson attacks during the past week had been racially motivated “hate crimes”.
“Obviously somebody or somebodies are interested in burning down churches. Whether it’s hate against a race or religion in general, we don’t know,” said Ragan Ingram, a spokesman for the state insurance agency that oversees fire investigations.
Chip Burrus, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s acting assistant director, said that investigators were working on the assumption that all nine fires were connected.
Nancy Nelson, an FBI special agent, went further, saying that the FBI was looking for evidence that this was a “civil rights violation — or hate crime”.
In a country with about 350,000 churches, such arson attacks are by no means uncommon. But in the Deep South of America they are always likely to cause fear.
Alabama is where the Ku Klux Klan’s first members were recruited. In the 1960s it was where Rosa Parks boarded a bus and caused fury by sitting in a seat reserved for whites; Governor George Wallace attempted to preserve segregation; and Martin Luther King was initially blocked by state troopers from marching into Montgomery.
And Boligee, Alabama, is also where, ten years ago, there was another series of mysterious fires at black Baptist churches. The arsonist was never caught and there remain real doubts about whether the attacks were racially motivated. But, as Jimmy Carter, the former President said on Tuesday at the funeral of Dr King’s widow, Coretta, Alabama remains one of those states where “the struggle for equal rights is not over”.
Many black churches were established before blacks had cars, or when they were slaves. They tend to be simple structures tucked away down back roads, with tiny congregations and part-time pastors. But they remain anchors of black life in the South, and symbols of black independence.
In Boligee yesterday, Johnny Archibald stood outside the smouldering ruins of the Morning Star Baptist Church, which was burnt down to its concrete block foundation. All that remained of the wood-frame building were the front steps and handrail. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “It’s just sickness.”
Jim Posey, pastor of the same church, said that he could not understand the motivation for the arson attacks. “What kind of satisfaction could you get?” he said. “We were not bothering you. We do not even know you.”
Mary Britton, who works near the Dancy First Baptist, another church that was damaged on Tuesday, said: “We’re scared. It’s horrible to know there is stuff like that in a person’s heart.”
Residents spotted a sports utility vehicle (SUV) speeding through an intersection near the Morning Star church on Tuesday night. Members of the Old Union Baptist Church in Brierfield, which was damaged by fire on Friday, had spoken of a dark SUV near their church as they arrived to douse the flames. Authorities were yesterday taking plaster casts of tyre tracks and footprints found on a blackened door that had been kicked in, and dogs were searching the smouldering rubble.
Officials said that they were looking for a dark-coloured car. All of the fires were on small roads off the main highway, and police believe that the culprit knows the area well, possibly through hunting. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has sent 50 agents to Alabama to investigate the fires, in addition to the 10 investigators from the FBI. The Government has offered $10,000 in rewards for information about the attacks. Austin Banks, a special agent for the bureau, said that there were “many common signs” between the arson attacks. Most showed signs of forced entry, and the fires had begun near the pulpit, in the sanctuary area of the church. “It’s a sad sight to see a smouldering church, particularly when it doesn’t have a rich congregation,” Mr Banks said. “This is going to be our top priority until we put someone in jail.”