“Racial hostility is the driving force” behind dozens of fires that have claimed black churches across the Southern and Mid-Atlantic states in recent months, President Clinton said Saturday. While no evidence of a nationwide conspiracy has been found, he said, the federal government will use its full powers to stop the outbreaks of arson.
With ministers from two of the burned-out churches at his side, the president said in his weekly radio address that “I have vivid and painful memories of black churches being burned in my own state when I was a child.
“It’s hard to think of a more depraved act of violence than the destruction of a place of worship.”
Clinton said, “I am determined to do everything in my power to get to the bottom of these church burnings as quickly as possible. And no matter how long it takes, no matter where the leads take us, we will devote whatever resources are necessary to solve these crimes.”
Thirty-four suspicious fires were reported this year, and 16 last year, at black churches in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The most recent incident occurred Thursday in Charlotte, N.C., when a 93-year-old building on the grounds of the Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church burned. It had been used to store old pews, and the congregation worshiped in a new building nearby.
“We do not now have evidence of a national conspiracy,” Clinton said. “But it is clear that racial hostility is the driving force behind a number of these incidents. This must stop.”
More than 200 federal, state and local law enforcement agents are investigating the open cases. The inquiry is the federal government’s largest current civil rights probe.
Arrests have been made in five of the 34 incidents this year, and one case was determined to be an accident, according to Justice Department records.
Two of those arrested are “known members of the Ku Klux Klan,” the president said.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: What the government plans to do about church arsons President Clinton announced several new steps Saturday: The administration will support a bipartisan bill offered by Reps. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., and Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., “to make it easier to bring federal prosecutions against those who attack houses of worship.” The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on the legislation Tuesday. Federal agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will visit black churches to provide advice and suggestions on maintaining security and guarding against arson. A special federal task force will report to Clinton on progress in solving the crimes and “to let me know if there are other actions the federal government can take beyond those under way to stop these crimes.” The government will operate a special toll-free number to collect tips about the fires. The number is 1-888-ATF-FIRE (1-888-283-3473). - Los Angeles Times