Albion Monitor /News

Church Burning Shakes Up Segregated Town

by Martha Honey

Three black churches burned in tiny Alabama town

(IPS) BOLIGEE, Alabama -- Volunteers from across the United States and as far away as Tanzania, Ireland, and Yugoslavia arrived in this tiny town in rural, western Alabama last month to help rebuild three black Baptist churches.

The work crew is part of a Quaker-run project in tiny Boligee (population 300) to rebuild churches that were destroyed by arsonists since December. Nearby, the Mennonites are rebuilding a fourth burned Baptist church.

"Since we arrived June 1, a dozen more churches have been burned nationwide," says Harold Confer, 55, head of Washington Quaker Workcamps which is spearheading the reconstruction. "President (Clinton) has made it the hot issue of the summer, and thousands of people from around the world have responded."

The Quakers have also offered their services to the local public school. The work camp donates labor, expertise and tools, while the school furnishes the supplies and lunch. Work teams scour, paint, and repair the school's bathrooms. There are some two dozen volunteers, mainly white, young, and from the north.

"In a sense this is a new recreation of racial relations in America, because for the last 200 years it's been poor, black women who have scrubbed the toilets," says Phillida Hartley, 44, an Australian volunteer who initiated the school repair project.

"Now the toilets in this black school are being scrubbed by American and international white people who are doing it of their own free will, as a labor of love."

Fires began just after three young white men had been convicted of vandalizing several black churches

The summer work camp is shaking up mores in Greene County, the poorest, smallest and, many here say, most segregated town in the state. The county is 82 percent black, and with the exception of Boligee and Eutah -- the county seat which both have white mayors -- most elected officials are African Americans.

But the civil rights movement of the 1960s appears to have changed little else.

"Here we have two of everything," says Deacon Henry Carter, 79, of Little Zion, one of the burned churches.

In practice, if no longer in law, Greene County has black public schools and a private, all-white academy; a black and a white newspaper; a black bank and a white bank; a black public swimming pool, a predominately white public pool, and all-white private country club; and racially separate funeral homes and cemeteries. Some doctors' offices still have separate waiting rooms.

Thirty years later, in Eutah, white minister Wayne Fair also paid a price for trying to break these taboos. For eight years, Fair, a native of Alabama, was minister at Eutah's First Presbyterian, the town's oldest church. His family lived in the parish house just off the town square, and the church paid his children's tuition at the all-white private Warrior Academy.

Fair says when he and his wife Pat withdrew their children from the Academy because of "its cultural values, its materialism, classism, racism and emphasis on football to the hilt," some church elders were "very offended."

Last year, when Fair began inviting a few blacks, including an ex-convict, to church, the elders held a secret meeting and unanimously voted to fire him.

No arrests have been made in connection with the four black churches, and the two communities remain divided over the motives behind the fires. Most white teachers, reporters, ministers and other community leaders interviewed in Eutah deny race is a factor. Many hint that blacks themselves may have been responsible.

"It could be blacks who wanted racial tensions to stay or to divert attention from the community's political problems or, in two cases, to collect the insurance," said a minister's wife who asked to remain anonymous.

Black pastors and politicians are incensed by such remarks. They note that the fires began just after three young white men had been convicted of vandalizing several black churches in the neighboring county.

A shot was fired into the home of the black circuit judge who sentenced the trio; two of the churches burned on the same night; and in recent months, there have been a string of minor racial incidents, says City Councilman Spiver Gordon, the long-time local leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"It's very, very troubling and upsetting (that) there's so much denial in this country about whether race is a factor," Gordon contends.

The church burnings are intended "to instill fear, but it's backfiring"

Some see the burnings as an organized conspiracy by white supremacist groups. Others view them as part of a more generalized tide of hatred, fueled by extremist radio talk shows and linked to other crimes such as the Oklahoma City bombing.

John Zippert, editor of The Democrat sees the burnings as "part of a continuum."

"I think (former President Ronald) Reagan set the tone that somehow white people in this country were being discriminated against, and this allowed people who are more extreme the opportunity to do what they want -- to blow up buildings, burn down churches and shoot people," he said.

"This country has in many ways become more racist in an institutional way, despite all the positive things that have happened in the last generation," added Zippert, a white New Yorker married to a black poet and activist, who came south 30 years ago to work in the civil rights movement.

Arising from the ashes around Boligee are larger, more modern churches as well as a sense of purpose and community that had waned since the civil rights movement. The church burnings are intended "to instill fear, but it's backfiring," says Gus Townes, Director of Training at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives which is housing the volunteers.

A team of ladies and a cluster of small children arrive at noon every day at the Litte Zion work site, bearing fried chicken, potato salad, corn bread, beans, greens, and other dishes. While the 40-odd volunteers and local workers fill their plates, the church women entertain with gospel songs.

A handful of Alabama whites have joined the reconstruction project, but none from Greene County. Some local white churches have, however, collected funds and sent meals to the work sites, and the Eutah Chamber of Commerce recently hosted a dinner for the volunteers.

In the shadow of the nearly completed church, guitarist Terry Barnes sang an Appalachian hymn: "If you think He's just a carpenter, then look at what He built." To which the Little Zion women responded with the hand-clapping gospel: "When all God's children get together, what a time."

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Albion Monitor September 21, 1996 (

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