1996 Church Burnings

In the summer of 1996, the U.S. media widely reported a surge in white racist burnings of black churches in the American South.

The church burning scare is the perfect example of how a crisis can be fabricated and promoted with little basis in reality. American politics and American media have become crisis-driven, and if no crisis readily presents itself, sometimes a lesser event gets twisted into something it is not.

The Scare

In a March 1996 press conference, the Center for Democratic Renewal and the National Council of Churches announce a huge increase in arsons against black churches by "a well-organized white-supremacist movement." Their preliminary report showed an increase in such arsons every year since 1990 and that all suspects were white.

Who were these organizations? The CDR is a liberal political organization whose main tenet is that white-against-black terrorism is on the rise. In 1989, the Washington Post reported the CDR's findings that racial violence and other hate crimes were sharply increasing, a conclusion unaccepted by most. In 1994, the CDR reported that white supremacy was a dominant force in U.S. politics and society, and that violent hate crimes were increasing.

In 1995, the NCC hired a CDR board member who suggested investigating church arsons. The NCC wanted to counteract the influence of the religious right in politics, holding a meeting to address the issue. Whites burning black churches provided the perfect vehicle. "There's only a slippery slope between conservative religious persons and those that are really doing the burning," said CDR chair C.T. Vivian.

The Hype

President Bill Clinton was running for re-election and needed to shore up his support among the black community, where prominent leaders were criticizing his record and even suggesting third-party competition. In a June 1996 radio address, Clinton proposed a federal task force to investigate church fires, and condemned the "racial hostility" that was "the driving force" behind the arsons.

The federal government jumped in wholeheartedly. Clinton held a White House summit on the issue with Southern governors, and assigned the head of the Federal Emergency Management Association to lead a multi-agency investigation. The ATF and FBI (experts in the field of church burning) assigned 200 agents to the project.

In July, the Church Fire Prevention Act of 1996 added church arson to the growing list of federal crimes. No matter that the Constitution does not authorize the federal government to deal with arson, thus leaving it as a state issue. Another law, August's spending bill, authorized $12 million to combat arsons of black churches.

The press dutifully responded. By June 8, 1996, more than 2,200 newspaper articles on the topic had been printed, most in a sensationalistic style ("Madmen Setting Fires of Hatred in South," a typical headline read). Virtually every article accepted as fact that arsons of Southern black churches were rising dramatically, that white racists were to blame, and that the conservative political movement in general was responsible for encouraging racial hatred.

The hype was successful in meeting the objectives of all involved: the CDR raised around $9 million for its efforts, Clinton was re-elected, and the press got its ratings for the crisis du jour. The NCC earmarked at least $3.5 million of the funds it raised for rebuilding churches to use for program advocacy -- politicking.

The Reality

At the August Democratic national convention, Clinton condemned the painting of swastikas at Ft. Bragg as symptomatic of widespread racism that leads to church burnings. In September, the Army confirmed that the swastikas had been painted by a black soldier, a fact reported as early as June.

Michael Fumento in the July 8 Wall Street Journal exposed the CDR's faulty research. The CDR's report "regularly ignored fires set by blacks and those that occurred in the early part of the decade, and labeled fires as arson that were not." USA Today's statistics showing a rise in black church arsons largely resulted from states first starting to report data on the crime. No increase is evident when looking only at states that reported data for the whole period of 1990 to 1995.

Fires most definitely did increase after the press hype due to "copycat" crimes. The new federal church burning army quickly found that there was no widespread conspiracy. Those arrested varied widely from a 13-year-old Satanist girl to a black man generating business for his brother's construction company. Sixteen of 44 individuals arrested for black church arsons were black, and nearly half of all suspects were minors.

The bottom line: white racists burn fewer than ten Southern black churches every year, a number that did not change much in the 1990s. These crimes are violations of numerous local and state laws, and should be prosecuted at that level. Only if there is a pattern of local law enforcement ignoring the crimes should the federal government step in.

Source: "After the Firestorm: A Review of the 1996 Church Fire Scare," personal research by Scott Swett (e-mail: saswe(atsign), with minor corrections.