Who's Fanning the Flames of Racism?

January 01, 1997  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  The Wall Street Journal  ·  Black church-burning hoax

It was a year ago that alarms about the "epidemic" of black church burnings were reaching fever pitch. Last week’s report by the National Church Arson Task Force confirmed that the epidemic was bunkum. It states clearly that, despite everything we were told, there was no conspiracy to burn black churches.

Yet there was a conspiracy — the one that misled the public into thinking black churches were under concerted attack.

Let’s refresh our memories about what was being said during those heady days of panic, contrasting it with what we now know. The headlines made clear not only that there was a sudden burst in black church burnings but also that they were racially motivated. A sampling:

  • "Flames of Hate: Racism Blamed in Shock Wave of Church Burnings" (New York Daily News).
  • "A Southern Plague Returns" (Associated Press).
  • "The South Is Burning: A Rash of Torchings at Black Churches Has Resurrected the Ugly Specter of Racism" (Toronto Star).

The cover of the leftist weekly In These Times featured a flaming church with the caption "Burning Hate." Mainstream magazines had titles like "Terror in the Night Down South" (Newsweek).

Mainstream civil-rights groups jumped on the bandwagon. "The fires of hate consume us all," blared a National Anti-Defamation League full-page ad in several major newspapers, depicting a burning church. "This is every church in America," declared a fund-raising ad for the National Council of Churches’ Burned Churches Fund.

Naturally, the politicos got into the act. President Clinton made numerous speeches on the subject, comparing the situation with ethnic violence in Rwanda and Bosnia. Congress unanimously approved special legislation to fight the alleged epidemic.

In reality — as I detailed on this page last July (please see Michael Fumento’s column, "A Church Arson Epidemic? It’s Smoke and Mirrors") — there was never reason to believe that for the first several months of 1996 there were any more black church arsons than there had been in previous years. Yet in May, Americans had begun to be deluged with alarming reports. Then, in early June, the president delivered a stirring radio address in which, as one newspaper headline put it, "Clinton Vows to Douse Hatred."

That "was our turning point," a National Council of Churches spokesman said later. "Suddenly our issue caught fire."

And suddenly, there really was a church arson epidemic. In the first five months of 1996, there were 34 arsons against black churches and 32 against nonblack ones. In just the next four months, this jumped to 58 in black churches and 102 in nonblack ones, according to the Church Arson Task Force. These were mostly copycat fires. Arrested arsonists told police that they "saw it on the news and this became the thing to do," explained James E. Johnson, an assistant Treasury secretary who served as the task force’s co-chairman.

Those who read the papers or watched television couldn’t escape the message that the church-torchers were from "a well-organized white-supremacist movement," as the late Rev. Mac Charles Jones of the NCC put it. "This is domestic terrorism," the Times of London proclaimed in an article titled "Churches Burn While Spirit of the Klan Rises Again." Meanwhile, related the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, "In Washington, black ministers insisted that a conspiracy of white supremacists and their followers is behind the nationwide string of fires."

In reality, the task force notes, a third of all suspected church arsonists arrested since January 1995 have been black — more than twice the proportion of blacks in the general population. This proportion applies to church arsons as a whole and to arsons against African-American churches specifically.

As for the white suspects, scarcely any of them appeared to have racial motivations. Two churches were burned by Ku Klux Klan members working together. That’s it for the white supremacists. "The Task Force has found that only a few of the fires are linked by common defendants," the report states, and "cases closed to date and the charges that have been filed do not support the theory that these fires were the product of a nationwide conspiracy." Yet after the task force issued its report, Vice President Al Gore preposterously declared: "1996 was a terrifying year. We witnessed a blaze of violence that seared the nation’s conscience. . . . We have done more than simply gained the upper hand against these terrorists. We’ve also grown stronger as a nation."

The task force report confirmed what a few enterprising reporters had discovered last summer. Along with this page, The New Yorker, the Washington Post and the Associated Press all published articles concluding that there was no epidemic prior to the copycat fires. USA Today, which had earlier cranked out a slew of articles with titles like "Arson at Black Churches Echoes Bigotry of Past," published a three-part series acknowledging there was neither an epidemic nor a conspiracy.

Most of the press, however, continued to yell "Fire!" By mid-August the New York Times had printed almost 100 articles in whole or in part on the church fires, with titles like: "Links Sought in an `Epidemic of Terror.’" Yet the "newspaper of record" couldn’t spare more than a column inch for the evidence that it was a hoax. And nationally syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page decried the "conspiracy of silence" about the fires. That silence must have been deafening: A search of the Nexis database turns up 1,400 references to the burnings — including several in the Tribune — published before Mr. Page’s column.

The faux epidemic was no case of spontaneous combustion. It was planned and propelled by the Center for Democratic Renewal — a group that sees white-hooded, cross-burning night riders behind every bush — and by the NCC. The more-activist CDR carried the torch, as it were. It began putting out a series of terror-inducing press releases and statements warning of "domestic terrorism," as Joann Watson, its chairman of the board, declared. "It’s an epidemic," Ms. Watson added.

A new form of alchemy: gold from fire.

Suddenly the CDR was famous and the NCC, which had been struggling to raise money, found its piggy bank was bursting. The NCC’s Burned Churches Fund, which claims to have collected $8.5 million in cash, has become one of the more fashionable charities for those who favor conspicuous compassion. (Leona "The Queen of Mean" Helmsley just tossed a cool million at it.)

Yet only about half of this money has gone to rebuild burned churches. Much of the rest has been spent or earmarked for "program advocacy" — seminars and other forums to address "economic justice" and "interlocking oppressions from gender to homophobia."

Meanwhile, the NCC and the CDR are both busily denying that the epidemic was a hoax. Carol Fouke, an NCC spokeswoman, says the task force dealt only with "what can be proven in a court of law, vs. what the whole community knows to be true." And three months ago the CDR released a report invoking the church burnings as part of a "conspiracy to start a race war."

Far-fetched? Sure. But when it comes to setting one race against another, the CDR and NCC surely know whereof they speak.