Concern grows as black churches burn across South

SLED agents investigate at the Glover Grove Baptist Church after a fire destroyed it early Friday.

The Rev. Bobby Jean Jones doesn’t want to believe his small Aiken County church was torched as a result of racial hatred, but he finds the fire there last week “very, very, very suspicious.”

Jones’ Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, just west of Aiken, is among at least seven black churches to burn across the South following the killing of nine worshipers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church and Gov. Nikki Haley’s subsequent call to bring down the Confederate flag.

Federal and state authorities investigating the early mornings church fires say all are suspicious or of undetermined origin.

But some religious leaders and researchers with one of the nation’s leading racial hate watchdog groups are concerned about the suspicious timing of the fires, coming so soon after the killings and Haley’s call.

“Hatewatch,” the blog of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which monitors the radical right, described some of the fires as “possible hate crimes.”

In her call to furl the battle flag, Haley pointed out that it had been usurped as a symbol of hate groups and did not belong on the Statehouse grounds.

The Rev. Joe Darby, presiding elder of the AME Church’s Beaufort District, told The Post and Courier the recent church fires give him a sickly feeling of “déjà vu.” It rekindles memories of 1996 when the Ku Klux Klan torched two black churches in Clarendon County amid a wave of fires that scorched black churches across the state and the South, many of them hate-related.

Those fires occurred while debate swirled over efforts at the time to remove the Confederate flag from a place of honor atop South Carolina’s Capitol dome, where it was placed in 1962 to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War’s beginning. Some contend it also was placed there in symbolic resistance to the civil rights movement.

At the time, Darby had served as a pastor of an AME church in Richland County, not far from the tiny town of Eastover, home of the accused killer of the nine Emanuel worshipers. Darby later became pastor of Charleston’s Morris Brown AME Church, the daughter church of Emanuel AME.

Darby said he believes some of the recent church burnings are part of a pattern of interrelated hate crimes prompted by the Emanuel AME massacre. He pointed to a series of bomb threats in Charleston after the killing:

The first was called in not long after the Emanuel AME Church shootings as police flooded the area near the church. Police say it was traced to a juvenile out of state and have discounted it.

A second bomb threat was reported at Morris Brown AME Church, the day after the shootings, just as a vigil honoring the dead ended. A third targeted Morris Brown AME the next day. And a fourth threat reportedly involved the Charleston County jail where Roof is held.

Police determined all to be unfounded.

And now, Darby said, the fires at black churches break out. It’s not all a coincidence, he said.

In addition to the Aiken County church fire, the other churches hit by blazes include:

An early morning June 22 blaze at the College Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. According to multiple news reports, police said the fires were set in multiple places.

The next day, God’s Power of Christ Church in Macon, Ga., was damaged in what investigators reportedly labeled a case of arson.

A day later, Briar Creek Road Baptist Church in Charlotte was damaged in a blaze, also ruled to have been intentionally set, according to reports.

That same day, Fruitland Presbyterian Church, in Gibson County, Tenn., a landmark structure built in the 1800s, was damaged by a fire. According to reports, the fire may have been sparked by lightning but remains under investigation..

A fifth fire happened Friday in Tallahassee, Fla., the same day the Aiken County church burned. That fire leveled Greater Miracle Apostolic Holiness Church. The cause remains under investigation, but investigators reportedly suspect a tree limb falling on electric lines.

Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and editor of the center’s “Intelligence Report” journal, told the newspaper the center does not know at this point if any of the fires were hate-motivated. But, he said, the explosion of the fires after the sudden and unexpected calls for removal of the Confederate flag creates an “intriguing” coincidence.

Late Monday, SLED issued a statement saying the cause of the Glover Grove Baptist Church fire has been classified as “undetermined.” The joint statement with the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office, ATF, and the FBI said investigators were “unable to determine an exact origin or fire cause. As a result, agents were unable to eliminate all accidental ignition sources. Investigators observed no element of criminal intent.”

The Rev. Jones, the church’s pastor, said nothing was wrong with electrical or other equipment in the 33-year-old church. He’s a professional electrician who oversees the church’s equipment, and he said everything was in good condition.

“I can’t believe it was accidental,” he said of the fire.

Jones, who also works as building and grounds program manager for Aiken County Public Schools, said he has relatives and friends who live within a rock’s throw of the church and likely would have noticed a smell, smoke or something if it had been an electrical fire.

But the early morning blaze seemed to erupt rapidly, he said. He lives just two streets over from the church and was awakened by a neighbor who lives next to it. When he looked out the door, the fire was going full blast.

“It was going that fast. That’s why I can’t believe it was electrical,” Jones said.

Nevertheless, Jones, pastor at the church the entire time it’s been at its current location, said he doesn’t want to believe someone might have torched it or that the fire might be connected to efforts to bring down the Confederate flag. He said the church has had no trouble with anyone in the previous 33 years.

“We’ve got people flying that flag two doors down,” and there’s been no trouble, he said. “It’s just a flag to me. I believe in people. I’ve never seen anything racial here. I’m not saying that caused anything to my church.”

But Jones recalls racial difficulty at the church’s former location on a lonely secondary road about three miles from the current fire-gutted building. That building experienced repeated trouble with vandals, people throwing bottles and scrawling “crazy” words on the church, “like KKK,” he said. That church burned to the ground in 1982. He doesn’t know the cause, he said.

Jones said the church, with about 50 active members, has about $200,000 in insurance. He hopes that money, plus donations, will enable the church to rebuild at its current location. In the meantime, services will be held at the nearby Clearwater Village community center.

The Emanuel AME murders and subsequent church fires have prompted renewed calls for better security measures at churches, and black churches in particular.

Better security, including locked doors, might have prevented the killings at Emanuel AME. But it was the church’s existing security, time-stamped video cameras, that directly led to identifying and capturing Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old charged with the killings.

Those cameras caught Roof entering the church before the killings and leaving an hour later, immediately after the shootings. The cameras also captured images of Roof’s getaway car.

Police widely distributed photos from those videos, which enabled a motorist in North Carolina to identify the suspect and car, and notify the police who captured him.

Larry Williams is a former police officer in New Orleans who now works as a security consultant specializing in houses of worship. He sees a need greater than ever for churches to install measures including surveillance cameras and buzzers at their doors.

“The victimology is rather clear: Southern black houses of worship. No coincidence there,” Williams said.

Williams, who grew up in the AME church, is frustrated that many pastors are reluctant to install critical security measures, partly out of concern that they could impede open-door policies. Faith and trust, both very admirable, also can keep pastors from taking precautions to protect themselves, he said.

“I’m not at all surprised a predator was able to enter a Bible study session and fatally wound nine defenseless congregants and escape,” Williams said. “The failure to have physical security is due to the cost and the belief that a higher power will protect the faithful from evil-doers, certainly during prayer and worship.”

“The black churches’ reputation for avoiding security measures will continue to make the perfect target for racists,” Williams said.

Along with the recent spate of Southern church arsons, he pointed to several hate-fueled shootings that have targeted minority worshippers:

A 1974 shooting at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta that killed Martin Luther King Jr.’s mother as she sat at an organ during a service.

A 2003 shooting at Turner Monumental AME Church in Atlanta in which a woman killed her pastor, her mother and herself.

A 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin that left six dead.

A 2012 shooting at the World Changers Church in Atlanta that killed one person.

The 2015 shooting that killed nine at Emanuel AME in Charleston.

“If the shooters are motivated by racial animosity and or opposition to civil rights, an attack at a black church holds a strong symbolic attraction,” Williams said. “The civil rights movement was born and nurtured in the black church. Ministers and pastors have always advocated for equal treatment for black citizens, even during slavery.”

In downtown Charleston, the historic Morris Brown AME is among urban black churches that do have security measures in place.

The Rev. Charles Watkins, pastor of the Morris Brown, said the church has a buzzer on the back door, panic buttons inside and surveillance cameras. But those likely wouldn’t have prevented the Emanuel killings.

“It’s always on my mind,” Watkins said regarding the safety of his parishioners. “But this tragedy wasn’t a lack of security. It was purely a violation of trust.”

Darby, the presiding elder of the AME Church’s Beaufort District, said security simply hasn’t been a big issue among his 33 churches. They have not had problems, nor have members or pastors come to him asking to add measures.

“None of my churches have had security concerns,” Darby said.

Still, Watkins said, Morris Brown’s members, like Emanuel’s, would have welcomed a visiting stranger into their midst.

Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558 and Jennifer Berry Hawes at 937-5563.