Hours after President Barack Obama was sworn in as the nation’s first black president, a white man was dousing gasoline on a house of worship in Massachusetts because, he said, “it was a n–ger church.”
Years before, the FBI managed to infiltrate a White Aryan Resistance group and discovered its attempt to kick off a race war by killing black churchgoers with machine guns.
It wasn’t too long ago—in the 1990s, as a matter of fact—that the federal govenment felt compelled to do something about the string of arson fires that were being used to bring down black churches in the South. The National Church Arson Task Force was formed as a result. White arsonists who were acting with racist intent would be subject to harsh federal sentences.
These incidents remind us that the massacre Wednesday in a black church in Charleston, S.C., that claimed the lives of nine people is but the latest in a long history of attacks in the U.S. targeting African-American parishioners.
The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing
Four Ku Klux Klan members planted 15 sticks of dynamite underneath the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The explosives went off Sept. 15, 1963, killing four young African-American girls while they were getting ready for Sunday school. The incident emerged as a game-changing moment in the fight for civil rights because it revealed the lengths to which white supremacists would go to thwart the efforts of African Americans fighting for equality.
A Foiled Attack on Los Angeles’ First AME Church
If a group of eight knucklehead skinheads had had their way back in 1993, they would have stormed in on an African-American congregation at Los Angeles’ First AME Church, mowed down everyone with machine guns, assassinated Rodney “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?” King and bombed the church building as a way to jump-start a war between the races.
Fortunately, the FBI foiled their racist plot and arrested them. The eight men were members of the White Aryan Resistance group.
The Arson Attacks on Black Churches in the 1990s
Arsonists attacked black churches in the South between 1994 and 1996, particularly in South Carolina, where white supremacists set houses of worship on fire in Williamsburg, Manning, Lexington, Barnwell and Dixiana. The string of church fires targeting African-American congregations prompted action and inquiries from the Justice Department (pdf) and sparked congressional hearings on Capitol Hill, The Atlantic reports.
According to the New York Times, more than 70 fires damaged or completely annihilated African-American churches in the South during this time.
An Arson Attack on a Nevada Church
When a church in Henderson, Nev., got burned all the way to the ground in 1997 by a 23-year-old white man who said he targeted the church because some of its congregants were black, the federal government threw the book at the arsonist, subjecting him to the Church Arson Prevention Act.
Richard Dale Morrison was sentenced to over five years in prison—the first person ever to be prosecuted under the federal law. He received the maximum sentence possible, since his motive hinged on race.
A Massachusetts Church Burning Hours After President Obama Is Sworn In
President Obama had just been sworn in as the first black president of the United States when two white men several hundred miles away in Springfield, Mass., poured gasoline over a section of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ and set it on fire.
When one of the perpetrators was asked why he burned the church, he responded plainly, ” ‘Cause it was a n–ger church,” the New York Times reported.
That confession—divulging a racial motive—allowed both Robert Allen Stillman, 25, and Randall Elliott Moore, 22, to be subjected to federal arson charges. They both pleaded guilty to arson charges, and Moore also pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate civil rights.