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Church Burnings Show Race Tension, Panel Says Civil Rights Commissioners Seek Huddle With Southern Governors

The recent burnings of black churches in the South reflect an alarming rise in racial tensions in American society, federal civil rights officials said Wednesday. They challenged several Southern governors to meet with them on the issue.

Officials of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which held community forums on the church fires in six southern states, said the inquiry has shown that the string of arsons reflects a deeper racial problem.

“Racial tensions are a major problem in the states in which the burnings took place,” Mary Frances Berry, the commission’s chairwoman, told a news conference.

The commission conducted the forums over three months in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee after reports that arson at black churches in the South had risen sharply.

“The church burnings are reflective of increased racial tensions in America,” said Bobby Doctor, the commission’s southern regional director.

Leaders of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights group, said this summer that arson attacks on black churches expose growing racial division in the United States and a need for cooperation to solve the nation’s racial problems.

Civil rights commission officials said they are sending letters to the governors and legislators in the six states requesting meetings to discuss race relations and to develop “strategic plans” involving state agencies.

So far, Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster has accepted for an Oct. 20 meeting, the officials said.

Berry charged that public officials in most of the affected states have been “less than forthcoming,” a stance she attributed to the polarizing effect of discussing racial issues.

Berry acknowledged the findings by law enforcement officials that churches with mostly white congregations also have been burned and that only about 20 percent of the black church arsons now solved appeared to be racially motivated. She said the fact that a disproportionate number of black churches was involved gives cause for concern.

In contrast, Berry noted, the Justice Department and local law enforcement officials have found no evidence that the white church arsons were racially motivated.

More than 100 churches with predominantly black congregations, mainly in Southern states, have been burned since January 1995.