I am prompted to write with a less than enthusiastic review of Katie Days
write-up of the journalistic treatment of church arsons (Religion in the News, Vol. 2, No.
1.) To the best of my knowledge, I wrote the first story in the country questioning the
whole racial conspiracy angle on church arson coverage. I wrote it in June of 1996. I
could have written it much earlier but I expected one of my colleagues on the religion
beat in the South to beat me to it. It was obvious that the facts as they were being
reported were all wrong.
In my years on the beat Ive covered my share of church arsons. The church I was
supposed to have been married in was burned to the ground by an arsonist a few months
before the wedding. I was particularly familiar with the Gainesville, Florida church
arsons circa 1990. I had covered the issue in detail entirely apart from the racial angle
and I knew this: The most common cause of church fires everywhere in the United States is
arson. The numbers when I had last written about them in the mid-1980s were about 600 a
year. Therefore the media reports expressing horror about 40 church arsons in a two-year
period had to be hogwash.
I also knew that there was no central agency for reporting church arsons. The closest
thing to it would be the insurance industry. When I called the vice president of the
largest specialty company insuring churches, he was just as perplexed by the numbers as I
was. No one, from law enforcement or otherwise, was consulting with him.
I am not denying that some arsons stemmed from racial hatred. Because of the publicity,
I suspect that a higher number in 1996 may have fit that bill. But most of the fires were
probably set for the usual reasons: to cover up vandalism or robbery, to give bored kids
with borderline personalities some excitement, or because a serial fire-setter had some
obsession with religion. Take the Gainesville fires, for example. Between 1990 and 1992
more than 50 churches were burned down in the Gainesville area, a fact which eventually
attracted widespread coverage. But the authorities eventually arrested a psychotic drifter
who said he set the fires because voices from the buildings taunted him sexually. He was
charged with setting 17 of the Florida fires. The arson task force also concluded that 39
other church arsons in the region were copycat crimes, inspired by the wave of national
It seemed quite clear to me in the mid-1990s that certain activists on racial issues
had seized on the church fires as a way of raising either consciousness about racism or
money for their causes or both. They were distorting the facts beyond all recognition. I
remain disappointed in my colleagues in the media for having been taken in so easily.
It doesnt take a lot of intelligence to contact Church Mutual and ask how the
rate of church arsons this year compares to the rate five years ago. This story is a
classic study in gullible reporters from even the most respected news organizations being
taken in by "spinners" and never bothering to check the facts. That doesnt
mean that the victims of these fires dont deserve sympathy or support. Because all
church arsons now DO have to be reported to the federal authorities, and are investigated
by experts, they catch a lot more of these arsonists. In that the media coverage, no
matter how misguided, did some lasting good.
But your writer doesnt cite any real facts to support her assertion that the
media "dropped" this story too soon, or that they would have seen the conspiracy
if they had stuck with it longer. The closest she comes to it is saying that a
disproportionate number of black congregations burned. But were they all burned because
they were black congregations? Or were many of them burned because they were rural,
isolated, lacked fancy security, and were, therefore, easier targets? I look forward to
each issue of Religion In the News. Most of it is well researched and demonstrates the
quality of journalism that you are trying to encourage among those of us on the religion
beat. Unfortunately, "No National Conspiracy" was, I think, an exception to that
Editors Note: Rodgers-Melnick covered religion for the Fort Myers New-Press
in Florida from 1983 to 1988.
Katie Day replies:
I stand by my contention that the press has dropped the ball by abandoning its interest
in the racial dynamics in church burnings. From a national perspective, the key fact is
that African American churches are represented in arson figures at twice their proportion
in the total number of houses of worship in the U.S. This cannot be discounted as
insignificant. Two-thirds of those convicted in the torching or bombing of African
American churches have been white. Of course, this does not explain the motivations of
these individuals-and there are many. I was not arguing that a centralized national racist
conspiracy was afoot. In fact, no one involved in this issue is appropriating that
view-not the Justice Department, National Council of Churches, National Congress of Black
Churches, or the many volunteer groups involved in rebuilding. Still, when a lot more
African American churches are being burned than white churches, and mostly by those of
European descent, there is cause for scrutiny.
Of the 173 cases of church arson that have been resolved, only a few have been linked
with the Ku Klux Klan. (For a compelling look at two such cases, see the documentary
"Forgotten Fires," which was recently aired on Public Television.) But one does
not have to be a member of an organized hate group to receive a civil rights conviction
for a hate crime. Although racial hatred is difficult to prove in court, arsonists in
Alabama, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, South
Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas have been convicted of hate motives. While there is not an
identifiable national conspiracy, a number of local clusters of such hate crimes have been
At many of the burned African American churches, racist graffiti and harassment
preceded arson. Since there have been arrests in only one-third of the church arsons, most
cases remain unresolved and victimized churches live with lingering fears and a sense of
vulnerability in their community. Nonetheless, in our research (at the Church Rebuilding
Research Project) we have found many burned African American churches, not known for
political activism or even rhetoric, to be quietly living and worshipping under a constant
cloud of fear.
I would like to respond to another point raised by Ms. Rodgers-Melnick. There is now a
mechanism in place for reporting all fires in houses of worship-the National Church Arson
Task Force (a collaborative effort of the Department of Justice, the ATF, and the FBI).
Prior to its establishment in 1996, the insurance industry would not have been a reliable
source of information. Many black churches do not carry insurance. Journalists interested
in pursuing the issue should contact the Task Force for data. It monitors the crimes,
investigations, convictions, and racial demographics very closely. I hope that the press
will be equally vigilant in its coverage.