Since the murder of nine African Americans in the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, North Carolina, at least eight different black churches in the south have been torched, with three already confirmed as an arson attack. The last one in this string was the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina, only 60 miles north of Charleston. The burned churches are mostly in the south and include Charlotte, North Carolina, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Macon, Georgia. White supremacists in the south have historically targeted African American churches and continue to be used as a primary site to terrorize black communities.
The burning of black churches is a terrorist act intended to intimidate and instill fear in African American communities and through it make it possible to maintain the racist and white supremacist structure intact. The church is a visible public collective symbol and an affirmation of belonging to the shared civil society space. Therefore, burning a church is a terrorist act intended to contest and physically remove the institution and more importantly the black bodies that it houses from civil society and the shared meanings connected to it. The churches burning phenomena is a racist act intended as a collective lynching and an attempt to permanently remove the black institution from civil society and through it the black person him or herself.
In here, a connection must be made between the lynching of blacks in America’s history and the never-ending burning of black churches, since both are ideologically connected to white supremacy. The burning of black churches strategy dates back to the early 19th century as these institutions began to be set up. Lynching was intended to keep the freed slaves in the same economic, political, social and spacial relations that existed during the slave period. Lynching was used to terrorize African Americans and utilized to draw racial boundaries and maintain institutional inequalities intact in the face of rising demands for economic and political rights by the freed slaves.
A study by the Equal Justice Initiative documented a total of 3,959 victims of lynching in southern states between 1877 until 1950, a period extending from the post-Civil War era until after the end of World War II. What was interesting in the study is that it documented 700 more actual lynching cases than what was previously recorded. The report included the story of Jesse Thornton, who was lynched in Alabama and for not uttering “Mister” when addressing a white police officer. Another case in the report was that of Jeff Brown who was lynched for accidentally bumping into a white girl as he ran to catch a train. Lynching was a tool to keep black people “in their place” and to terrorize them into submission to white supremacy in the post-slavery period. The website and project Without a Sanctuary documented how widespread the phenomena was as people shared and sent each other greeting cards bearing photos of lynched individuals. What a deeply sick and vile society it was that sanctioned this activity.
The black church was established to serve the needs of freed slaves and ministers who set up these institutions and provided a much-needed space for prayers and education as well as a site for rallying against institutionalized racism. The church was the first and primary site that gave a visible, collective and public face to freed slaves and from its inception was firmly committed to an emancipatory agenda. Black churches were liberation churches from their inception.
As the number of black churches increased, the attacks by white supremacists intensified and in the process employed extreme terror and violence against the institution and the people who attended the services. As a matter of fact, Malcolm X’s father was a minister and likewise, according to Malcolm X’s biography, was killed by the Ku Klux Klan. Furthermore, over 60 different churches were burned during the Civil Rights Movement period including a number of deadly bombings.
If we take the burning of churches, lynching and police brutality together then we arrive at a structured and institutionalized regime of violence and terror that has been historically deployed so as to keep black people “in their place” and under control. Police violence becomes a civil society-sanctioned lynching since the rate of conviction for officers involved in the deadly use of violence against blacks is dismal and even when guilt is established they end up with a light sentence.
The black subject is constantly facing real and metaphorical lynching acts that contest their ability to live a “normal” life in America. Burning churches is a lynching act directed at the institutional backbone of the African American community and should be treated as a terrorist activity intended to sow fear and intimidation.
Today is the time to use the needed resources to protect and investigate these heinous crimes and bring it to an end. But the first step is to recognize it as a societal and not an individual problem.