What happened last time there was a spike in church fires

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Almost exactly 20 years ago, two predominantly black South Carolina churches were burned to the ground, one night after another. One of them was Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, the same church that was engulfed in flames by unknown causes on Tuesday night.


Initial reports leaked Wednesday by an unnamed federal law enforcement source told the Associated Press that Mount Zion AME was not intentionally set and was not arson.

But the fire brings back memories for many because the church has a history of being targeted by white supremacists.


"They didn't burn down the church. They burned down the building in which we hold church. The church is still inside all of us," Mount Zion’s Reverend Terrance G. Mackey told his daughter after a fire in 1995.

The arsons, which were committed by four ex-members of the Ku Klux Klan, were part of a nationwide spike in arsons at places of worship, which led to President Bill Clinton establishing the National Church Arson Task Force and passing the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996.

The task force developed a track record of identifying arson cases that appeared to be racially motivated for several years. The Church Arson Act was introduced after at least 30 historically Southern African-American churches were destroyed or damaged by suspicious fires in a span of 18 months. The act increased sentences for "intentionally defac[ing] or destroy[ing] any religious real property because of race, color, or ethnic characteristics of any individual associated with that religious property" from 10 to 20 years.


“It's hard to think of a more depraved act of violence than the destruction of a place of worship,” Clinton said in a speech he delivered at a ceremony marking the re-opening of Mount Zion A.M.E. Church on June 12th 1996.

“I have vivid and painful memories of black churches being burned in my own State when I was a child. In 1963 all Americans were outraged by the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that took the lives of four precious young children. We must never allow that to happen again,” Clinton said.


Between 1996 and 2000, Clinton's National Church Arson Task Force reported that it had  opened investigations into 945 arsons, bombings or attempted bombings at places of worship, one third of which happened at African-American places of worship.

About 14 percent of the people arrested for these arsons were between 6 and 13 years of age, while one-quarter were between 14 and 17.


Three quarters of the arrestees that stemmed from the federal investigations were white males, according to the task force's final report published in 2000. Racism was often the motivation, the report notes, but so were vandalism, mental health issues, and retribution against religious authorities, among other things.

The report also notes 37 percent of the people arrested for incidents at historically black places of worship were themselves African American.


In total, 305 defendants were convicted in 224 cases. Fifty-eight percent of the defendants convicted of federal charges relating to arson or bombing were found to have been "motivated by bias."


But changes to the Church Arson Act in the late 1990s made it more difficult to prove a church fire was set by an arsonist because of racial bias. Under the revised language, arson cases can only be ruled intentional and motivated by race if investigators obtain messages or confessions that explicitly demonstrate racial bias.

The task force was has not issued a report since 2000. Since then comprehensive reporting on church arson has been less reliable, says the National Fire Protection Association, which continues to track the cases to the best of its ability. "We do not track individual cases of church arson," it clarified in a report put out on its past research this week.


Between 2007 and 2011, the latest data available from the group, it recorded an average of 280 intentional structure fires per year at churches or other places of worship.

“In the end, we must all face up to the responsibility to end this violence,” Clinton said in his 1996 speech.


“We must come together, black and white alike, to smother the fires of hatred that fuel this violence,” Clinton said. “We must all do our part to end this rash of violence.”

Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.


Jorge Rivas is the national affairs correspondent at Fusion. He follows the national conversation through the lens of racial, sexual, and political identity.

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