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Cover story

Rebuilding burned church is a first step

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Boligee, Ala.

The two-day drive from Washington, D.C., to Greene County in the heart of Alabama's black belt felt like a journey back through time. Three decades ago, during the summers of 1964 and '65, I had driven south to work in the civil rights movement in Mississippi and Alabama. Now I was returning in early July with my 15-year-old son, Jody Avirgan, to join a Quaker-run project rebuilding three of the black churches destroyed by arsonists since December.

A fourth Baptist church in the area is being rebuilt by the Mennonites.

While my son pounded nails, I talked with old-timers and activists, blacks and whites, about what has changed, what's remained and why the upsurge in hate crimes.

Many are numbed by a sense of deja vu. At the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, advisory board member Carolyn McKinstry, 47, said, "When I started hearing about these church burnings, it became very real it was happening again. You always think things won't happen again."

In 1963, McKinstry was attending Sunday school in Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church when a bomb exploded, killing four young girls. "I lost four friends that day, and it instilled a lot of fear in me," recalled McKinstry. "Church burnings. Church bombings. It's like the ultimate in evil."

As happened in the '60s, the presence of Northerners and proclamations from Washington have turned a public spotlight on hate crimes in the South. "Since we arrived June 1, a dozen more churches have been burned nationwide, the president has made it the hot issue of the summer and thousands of people from around the world have responded," said Harold Confer, 55, a Washington builder. Confer heads Washington Quaker Workcamps, which is spearheading this reconstruction project, the first in the country. Volunteers from across the United States and as far away as Tanzania and Yugoslavia have arrived in tiny Boligee, population 300, and turned "a modest summer work camp program into a movement," said Confer. In late July, with construction on the churches well ahead of schedule, the Quakers offered to do repairs in the local public high school.

"At first I was in disbelief, but it's real," said Abraham Kinnard, 56, principal of Boligee's cash-strapped, all-black Paramount High School, as he watched volunteer carpenters cutting and relaying the gymnasium's badly buckled wooden floor. "I'd been wondering how to make the repairs before school opens, and the answer finally came with our good friends." The work camp donates labor, expertise and tools, while the school furnishes the supplies and lunch. Every day more local youngsters have shown up to help with the repairs.

Work teams are also scouring, painting and refurbishing the school's bathrooms. "In a sense this is a new re-creation of racial relations in America because for the last 200 years it's been poor black women who have scrubbed the toilets," said Philida 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."

Greene County is the smallest, poorest and most heavily black -- 82 percent -- in the state. The economy is in decline and more than half the population lives below the poverty line. Cotton is no longer king. It's been replaced with pine tree plantations, catfish farms and a huge toxic waste plant. Young blacks and whites move out, and "remittances" from up north help many families here.

A strong voter rights drive in the 1960s, however, succeeded in making Greene County the first in the nation to elect a full slate of black candidates. "All the meetings were in churches, and it was almost a religious conversion the way people found it so important to register to vote," recalled longtime black activist Carol Zippert. Except for Boligee and Eutah, the county seat, which both still have white mayors, elected officials are African-Americans. Some other vestiges of segregation have disappeared. In the mid-1960s I witnessed a Ku Klux Klan rally held in a cotton field in rural Alabama, but today no one here can recall a recent cross-burning. "Nobody's beating anybody. Nobody is openly oppressing anyone. But it's done in other ways," said one black political leader.

Little has changed

In many other ways, the civil rights movement appears to have achieved little change in Greene County. "Here we have two of everything," said Henry Carter, 79, a deacon at 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 predominantly white public pool and an all-white private country club; and racially separate funeral homes and cemeteries.

Some doctors' offices still have separate waiting rooms, and at the Boligee Cafe, white visitors are ushered to tables in the air-conditioned back room, while blacks customarily sit at the counter in the front room.

Except for the tiny, 30-member Catholic church, houses of worship in Greene County remain racially divided. "Eleven o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week," one local official said at a recent civic meeting called to discuss the church burnings. Over the last 18 months, some four dozen, mostly rural black churches have been burned in 11 states, including nine in Alabama.

Churches have long been both bastions of the racial divide and focal points of the civil rights movement. In 1965, I had worked on a civil rights newspaper in Tuskegee, where black college students were trying to integrate the local white churches. Sunday mornings ended in mayhem as black worshipers and the press were beaten by white parishioners and local toughs. As the summer ended, a local white gunned down student leader Sammy Young.

Still justifying segregation

Thirty years later, in Eutah, many whites still justify segregated churches. "It's cultural. I want to worship the way I worship," said one white parishioner. White minister Wayne Fair has 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 elegant parish house just off the quiet 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, decided to withdraw their children from the academy because of "its 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 one ex-convict, to attend his church, the elders held a secret meeting and voted to fire him.

Fair moved his family into the all-black Martin Luther King public housing project just outside Eutah to continue, he said, working for "racial reconciliation in Greene County. We're not here to be paternalistic or prove we're God's gift to the black community, but to live out day-to-day life."

Regarding the church burnings, Fair said, "The best thing we can do is show an abundance of concern, that we're not indifferent."

No arrests have been made in connection with the four black churches burned in this area, and the two communities remain deeply divided as well over the motives behind the fires. Like most white community leaders interviewed in Eutah, Betty Banks, owner of The Independent, the newspaper that caters to the white community, said, "I certainly don't think race has anything to do with the church burnings. We work together well. I see no prejudice here in Greene County."

Several whites hinted that blacks themselves may have been responsible. "Could be by 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 in the neighboring county of vandalizing several black churches. 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, said City Councilman Spiver Gordon, local leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "I know who has a history of burning churches. It ain't black folks. It's very, very troubling and upsetting that there's so much denial in this country about whether race is a factor," Gordon said.

The Rev. Levi Pickens, pastor of the burned Mount Zion church now being rebuilt by the Quakers, says bluntly that race relations in Greene County have "always been bad." Asked why churches have been targeted, he says, "Look like they trying to destroy our togetherness, trying to separate black people." Churches such as Mount Zion are among the few institutions economically independent of whites, and they have long been the social, political and historical, as well as religious center for rural black communities. Little Zion Baptist Church, for instance, was established here by slaves on a cotton plantation.

Who's doing the burnings?

Some see the burnings as an organized conspiracy by white hate groups. "They are most definitely organized," said Gus Townes, director of rural training at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which is housing the volunteers. "The pattern in every church burning, it's pretty much the same. Whoever's doing it has been trained."

Others, however, view them as part of a more generalized rising tide of hatred. John Zippert, who with his wife Carol publishes the newspaper that caters to the black community, The Democrat, sees the burnings as part of a continuum. "I think (President) Reagan set the tone that somehow white people in this country were being discriminated against," he said, "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." Zippert, a white New Yorker who came south 30 years ago to work in the civil rights movement, 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."

Zippert, among others, said that while the civil rights movement sought to knock down the last legal vestiges of segregation through voter registration and integrating schools, buses and restaurants, solutions to the current wave of hate crimes are more complex and intractable because they involve economic rehabilitation. "This economic stuff is deeper, it's harder to deal with and it takes more concentration and persistence," Zippert said.

At the work campsites, however, I found a spirit akin to what I'd known in the '60s. The church burnings are intended "to instill fear, but it's backfiring," said Gus Townes, director of training at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which is housing the volunteers. "Instead the church burnings have provided a much needed spark that is bringing people, both black and white, together so we can begin moving forward again."

At noon each day, a team of women and a cluster of small children arrive at the Little Zion work site, bearing fried chicken, potato salad, corn bread, beans, greens and other fixings. While the 40-odd volunteers and local workers fill their plates, the church women entertain with gospel songs. During one recent week, eight white parishioners from an evangelical church in Kentucky arrived in a camper to join the work party.

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. Only Buddy Lavender, Boligee's controversial and loose-tongued mayor, has voiced public opposition to the Quaker construction project. "Some of those who have come to rebuild are outside agitators," says Lavender, 67, who dresses in camouflage overalls. "They have caused a lot of friction among the races with what they're doing."

On Sundays the volunteers worship with the tiny congregations from the burned churches at makeshift locations. Charlie Means, 33, a deacon at Mount Zion Baptist Church, says, "You can't imagine walking into your Sunday school and seeing 15 blacks and 25 different white people, all feeling the same Holy Spirit. I can do nothing but thank God that I'm alive in 1996 to see this happen. Dr. Martin Luther King said many times that he had a dream. But I'm one of the people among the living that is seeing his dream become a reality."

National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1996