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A Fire on the Cross
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Cover Story

Further Victimizing the Victims

At least part of the problem appears to lie within law enforcement itself. The ATF has invested much of its time, effort and manpower in interrogating clergy and church members, subjecting them to polygraph examinations and rigorous questioning as though they were the perpetrators instead of the victims. Senior citizens have been forced to travel long distances over hot roads to answer bewildering questions about crimes of which they have no knowledge.

While investigating the arson of the Inner City Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, agents strapped pastors to polygraphs, fingerprinted parishioners, showed up unannounced at job sites and homes, and implied that church members had burned their own church. Assistant pastor Harold Smith, one of those interrogated, noted, “When your life is in the ministry, it hurts to be asked questions like this.”

A 14-year-old girl was reportedly taken from school studies by ATF agents and subjected to extended interrogation regarding details of the personal life of her pastor.

The deacon of St. Paul’s Primitive Baptist Church in Lauderdale, Mississippi, who has served his church for more than 20 years, was reduced to tears after one agent ground away with questions while another quoted scriptures. According to a local NAACP official, “The deacon cried ... because he loved his church and felt extremely humiliated that he would be accused of burning it down.”

The ATF “solved” the St. Paul’s arson by determining that the deacon had accidentally set the fire himself—a judgment the deacon, the church itself and the NAACP hotly dispute. Investigators ignored important evidence, including that close by, the trailer home of a black family burned to the ground within a few days of the church fire, and that a white male was seen leaving the scene as the home burned.

The zealousness with which clergy and church members have been cross-examined by ATF officials fails to extend to rigorous investigation and pursuit of the actual criminals. Genuine inconsistency in the probe has been pointed out by the pastors—some of whom have never heard from investigators, even though they are eager to be interviewed to provide data about the crimes.

The pastor of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Lee County, Arkansas, for example, told Freedom that while his church burned down on January 22, 1996, more than six months later he had yet to be visited or interviewed by any federal, state or local law enforcement officials.

By their actions at least, ATF agents have virtually accused members and leaders of certain churches of torching their own buildings. Any such allegation flies in the face of the position the individual church holds for its members and the sacrilege inherent in desecrating it.

A church in the South, perhaps more than anywhere, is the center of community life. The KKK has traditionally attacked black churches because of their pivotal role in the community and in promoting the improvement of conditions for blacks in society.

According to the Center for Democratic Renewal, a clearinghouse for information about hate crimes, insurance fails to come close to covering the costs incurred in rebuilding a church that has burned. And that has been the goal of virtually all congregations—to rebuild. Any whisper of “insurance fraud” thus becomes another red herring.

The heavy-handed manner in which ATF agents pursue pastors and parishioners for alleged fraud is not warranted, according to information from insurance firms. The vice president of Southern Mutual Church Insurance Company, Robert Bedell, whose firm insures a large number of churches in South Carolina, one of the states most heavily hit by arson, said that of the black churches they insure, not a single burning had been an “inside job.” Church Mutual Insurance Company reported that among all churches they insure, both black and white, in which arson is involved, the percentage attributed to “inside jobs” is so small that it is of no concern to them.

Freedom also learned that insurance policies of certain Southern black churches have been canceled in light of the waves of firebombings—yet another form of punishment of the innocent.

Infiltration of Hate

The central agency in the investigation, the ATF, is still struggling to live down a series of disasters, including its 1993 debacle at Waco, Texas, where it committed the fatal blunder of acting upon information from a convicted felon, jewel thief and psychopath named Rick Ross and a now-defunct hate group called the Cult Awareness Network. (See “The Shadows of Waco”)

That the ATF bought “information” from the likes of Ross and gave him preferred status was alarming. That it acted upon that information, as at Waco, was even more so and reflected upon the agency and its management just as seriously as do accounts of ATF agents’ activities at the annual “Good Ole Boys Roundup” in the hills of Tennessee, where bigotry was the order of the day and racism was in full bloom.

Many Americans, blacks as well as whites, recall media exposes about signs at the entrance to the site of some of the roundups, marked “N – – r Check Point” and “No N – – rs Allowed.” Throughout one year’s event, a black person hung in effigy near the check-in point.

The “Good Ole Boys Roundup” was in fact a creation of ATF agents, launched in 1980, with up to 500 “Good Ole Boys” attending in certain years. For the 1992 roundup, ATF agents reportedly designed and promoted a “Pocket N – – r” T-shirt, with artwork depicting a small black child peering out of a pocket. In 1995, such memorabilia as “N – – r-Hunting Licenses” and T-shirts with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s face in the cross-hairs of a rifle were featured.

Drunkenness, brawls, nudity and blatantly racist skits earmarked these gatherings, with charges of drug abuse and gang rape also surfacing. ATF special agent Gene Rightmyer, now retired, was the principal organizer, while “security” was provided by ATF agents from the bureau’s Knoxville office.

When pastors learned that two ATF agents who had attended the last and most notorious roundup in 1995 had been assigned to investigate church burnings, they protested and sought to have the agents removed. Instead of removing the agents or at least taking them off the probe, the ATF simply reassigned them to investigate other church fires—a move sharply criticized by clergy.

“Give a badge and a gun to a racist and you have the situation that we have with the ATF investigation of the firebombings,” Noah Chandler of the Center for Democratic Renewal told Freedom.

Formerly a division of the Internal Revenue Service, the ATF still revels in the glory days of its famous agent, Eliot Ness. Indeed, despite becoming an independent bureau within the Treasury Department in 1972, ATF has struggled with its identity since the repeal of Prohibition.

A 20-year U.S. Treasury Department official said the ATF has frequently been threatened with dismantling and its functions assigned to other agencies, such as Customs and the FBI. The main reason the group has not been taken apart, the official explained, is that no other agency is eager to put ATF managers or ATF-trained employees on its payroll.

“ATF management is the most incompetent ever assembled by any government agency, period,” he claimed, adding his opinion that this makes other federal agencies leery of ATF agents. A new head for the ATF, appointed following the Waco disaster, and a discrimination lawsuit settled in May 1996 with black ATF agents for between $4 million and $5 million in damages have not been enough to salvage the reputation of the agency.

Exploiting the Tragedy

The Rev. Dr. Mac Charles Jones, associate for racial justice of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., who headed a delegation of clergy that traveled to the nation’s capital on June 9 and 10 to meet President Clinton, Attorney General Janet Reno and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, told Freedom, “We have told them in Washington that the white supremacists have a policy of infiltrating local, state and federal law enforcement, that they must be mindful of this, and that this needs to be investigated in relationship to what is happening in the South.”

Jones added, “We have got to continue to force the question of why it has taken so long for the investigators to get to the bottom of these firebombings.”

More than two years after the bombings shifted into high gear—two years of little or no results—the ATF says, following strong pressure by local pastors, the National Council of Churches and the public, that it can now really get on with the investigation.

The ATF priority seems not to have been apprehending the culprits but exploiting the tragedy.

Observers have also pointed to a financial factor which works as a disincentive to rapidly solving the firebombings.

“They get a lot of overtime for that stuff,” a retired Treasury Department employee said. “They can double their salary.” If ATF agents work at night, he explained, “they get time and a half; on weekends, double-time—a clear advantage to string out an investigation.”

ATF spokesman John O’Brien refused to comment on the church burnings or any aspects of the bureau’s investigations.

Not User-Friendly

Civil rights activist Don Jackson of Tallahassee, Florida, said, “The church burnings in the South are part of a consistent pattern of hate crimes against minorities in this country. Churches in particular are targeted because they are visible symbols of community.”

Ted Eagans, co-founder of Lift Every Voice Inc., a human rights advocacy group (see “Human Rights Advocates Recognized”), told Freedom, “There is a pattern of activity. The federal government does have the ability to investigate patterns of activity. That the only effective action is happening from local and state levels is cause for concern.”

Dr. Arthur A. Fletcher, former chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, told Freedom that the church burnings are symptomatic of the fires of racism which have yet to be fully extinguished in America. “I have personally never found law enforcement to be user-friendly where blacks are concerned,” he said.

But Fletcher, like many other human rights leaders, is hopeful. “This seems to be the darkest hour before the sunshine,” he said. “The overt and covert racists are having their last hurrah. The church bombings are going to cause religions to join forces. We can expect to see a giant step in terms of the religious community coming together to reduce discrimination to insignificance.”

Many hope he is right. It is likely that this is just what it will take to resolve the root problem and make America safe for religious minorities.

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