Fanning Imaginary Flames: A Look Back At The Great Church Fire Propaganda Campaign
Fifteen summers ago, America's news media informed us that black churches throughout the South were being torched by white racists. The purported wave of arsons dominated the airwaves and generated thousands of newspaper articles. Pundits, politicians and preachers decried the terrorism and the hate it represented.
In fact, it never happened.
Here is the little-known story of how an obscure radical group teamed up with a leftist national church organization, an unprincipled President and a legion of compliant news outlets to create a media firestorm -- one based entirely on lies.
In late March of 1996, The Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR) and the National Council of Churches (NCC) held a joint press conference to report a huge increase in the number of arsons committed against black churches. In media interviews, the Rev. Mac Charles Jones, a CDR board member, blamed "a well-organized white-supremacist movement" for what he called "domestic terrorism." The CDR stated in a preliminary report that the number of such arsons had increased each year since 1990, and claimed that all suspects arrested were white.
Though the media typically described the CDR as an independent group that monitors hate crimes, the organization was in fact a propaganda outlet for the radical left. The group's stated mission was to work "with progressive activists and organizations to build a movement to counter right-wing rhetoric and public policy initiatives." For years the CDR had emitted a stream of statements, reports and interviews claiming that racial terror by whites against blacks was on the rise.
In 1989 the Washington Post covered a CDR report that violence by white hate groups had increased in an article titled "Bombings Called Latest of Racial Crimes." In 1994, CDR Program Research Director Loretta J. Ross argued in "State of the White Supremacist" that "white supremacy is an ideology that manipulates U.S. politics and affects all relations in American society." Ross's paper also referred to an "increase in violent hate crimes across the nation."
Given the CDR's dishonest track record and hard ideological edge, one might have expected the media to respond to its latest round of accusations with a grain of salt and some fact checking. With very few exceptions, this was not to be the case.
The church council
The Los Angeles Times reported in December of 1995 that the head of the National Council of Churches, concerned with the increasing influence of the religious right and seeking to expand the organization's political operations, had held a meeting with the leaders of six church denominations in Washington D.C. "to map out a counterattack." Around the same time, the NCC hired CDR's Mac Charles Jones as part of an increased emphasis on "racial justice in public life." It was Jones who suggested focusing on the topic of black church fires.
Some NCC churches were already working with the CDR. In July of 1995, the Methodist Church held a conference on "Christian Ministry in the Midst of Hate and Violence" featuring "State of the White Supremacist" author Loretta Ross. A Methodist report noted that Ross "drew parallels between the political agendas of hate groups and far right politics" and proposed strategies including "leadership development, research, cultivation of the media, and the building of networks that can respond immediately to care for victims and launch educational efforts."
In early June of 1996, President Bill Clinton met with two black ministers at the request of NCC general secretary Joan Campbell. On June 8, he denounced the church fires in a radio address and proposed a new federal task force to investigate them. Clinton spoke with emotion about his own "vivid and painful memories of black churches being burned in my own state when I was a child." The President charged that "racial hostility is the driving force" behind the fires, and pledged to place the full power of the federal government behind the investigation.
A burst of presidential activity followed. On June 14, Clinton invited Southern governors to a White House summit on the church fires. The next day, the FBI and BATF assigned 200 federal agents to the new task force. On June 17, the President appointed James Witt, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), to head a multi-agency effort focused on prevention. On July 11, Clinton told delegates to the NAACP's annual convention that America must stop "the fires of hatred and bigotry." On July 13, Clinton signed into law the Church Fire Prevention Act of 1996, which added church arsons to the more than 3,000 types of federal crime already on the books. On August 7, the President signed a spending bill that included $12 million to combat fires at churches with black congregations. Clinton toured the ruins of burned-out black churches on two occasions, including August 19, his 50th birthday. On August 29, while accepting his party's nomination for a second term, Clinton again referred to the fires, and condemned the painting of swastikas on the doors of Special Forces troops at Fort Bragg, North Carolina as another example of widespread anti-black hatred.
A media firestorm
Media coverage exploded after the President's radio speech. By July 8, over 2,200 newspaper articles had been printed on the topic. Magazines and news stations reported on a new campaign of terror rivaling the wave of segregationist church burnings and bombings in the South during the 1950's and early 1960's. The black-owned Los Angeles Sentinel ran an article typifying the tone of the coverage, titled "Madmen Setting Fires Of Hatred In South." USA Today ran huge articles on three consecutive days. In pulpits across the country, ministers raised their voices against racial terrorism and took up collections to rebuild the burned churches.
The media reported the claim that black church fires had dramatically increased as though it were a proven fact. Many news organizations also asked if conservative politics had created a "climate of intolerance." The Rev. C.T. Vivian, CDR's chairman, offered a helpful suggestion: "There's only a slippery slope between conservative religious persons and those that are really doing the burning."
On July 8, writing in the Wall Street Journal, Michael Fumento analyzed the CDR report state by state, and found that it "regularly ignored fires set by blacks and those that occurred in the early part of the decade, and labeled fires as arson that were not -- all in an apparent effort to make black church torchings appear to be escalating." Fumento also reviewed statistics published in USA Today showing a sharp rise in black church arsons starting in 1994. He pointed out that two of the Southern states USA Today listed hadn't started reporting data until 1993, and a third hadn't until 1995. Naturally, he said, when they did, the numbers went up. When the late-reporting states were eliminated, the USA Today statistics showed no increase from 1990 to 1995 (numbers for 1996 are skewed by copycat crimes that followed the massive publicity). For 1995, USA Today had reported 45 arsons against white churches in the states surveyed in the South, and 27 against black churches, compared to a 4:1 ratio of whites to blacks in the region. Fumento noted that Southern black churches tend to be smaller than white churches, and are therefore proportionally more numerous. They are also more likely to be located in economically depressed areas, older, and made of wood -- all factors in arson.
The day after President Clinton's radio address, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and others reported that no church burnings had occurred in Arkansas during Mr. Clinton's childhood, the president's "vivid and painful" memories notwithstanding.
On August 2, CDR Board President Joann Watson responded to Michael Fumento's article, insisting that "80 black churches were burned between January 1990 and May 1996." Watson ignored Fumento's numerous and specific claims that the CDR had falsified its data, concluding with, "We think that epidemic or not, even one church torched because of racial hatred is one too many."
On August 14, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) wrote a public letter accusing the NCC of fabricating "a great church-fire hoax." The IRD said that the NCC "has exaggerated the church burning phenomenon so as to promote its radical agenda and to smear conservatives, especially Christian conservatives, as racist." NCC general secretary Joan Campbell replied that since "roughly the same number" of white and black churches had been burned, racism was evident.
On August 27, James K. Glassman charged in a Washington Post editorial that President Clinton had "obscured the scandal of the FBI files by promoting the phony tale of a wave of racist church burnings."
In mid-September, the Army officially confirmed that the Fort Bragg swastikas that President Clinton had denounced as racist at the Democratic National Convention had in fact been painted by a black soldier. Television and newspaper accounts had reported that the primary suspect was black as early as June.
Following the money
Clinton's June 8 radio address was a bonanza for the NCC/CDR fund-raising effort. The NCC immediately flew 38 pastors to Washington and held a news conference to distribute an updated version of the CDR report. Eight charitable foundations, including the Ford Foundation, pledged contributions in 24 hours.
In mid-June, the National Council of Churches ran full-page ads in the New York Times, the Washington Post and numerous other papers soliciting contributions for its new "Burned Churches Fund." Readers were invited to "stand up against racism and help rebuild the burned churches." The Washington Times noted that the spokesman and administrator for the fund was Don Rojas, former Director of Communications for the People's Revolutionary Government of Grenada.
I called the Burned Churches Fund hotline in July to request a breakdown of how the money would be used, and was told, "we're just set up to take donations." The woman I spoke to was unable to provide contact information for the fund's managers, but assured me that "all the money is going directly to the churches."
On August 9, in an article titled "Burning Need," the Wall Street Journal reported that just a year before, the NCC had been "struggling to raise money to fund ambitious programs designed to combat racism." In the past year the NCC had submitted "at least three 'racial justice' proposals seeking $1.9 million in funding from nonprofit groups including the Ford Foundation. Ford and the others turned the proposals down." Now, the paper reported, the NCC "has managed to raise nearly $9 million in a major fund drive, and contributions continue to pour in at about $100,000 a day." The article noted that "by couching the burnings as a 'national disaster' orchestrated by 'organized white-supremacist groups' and by buying provocative full-page advertisements in four major newspapers, the NCC has raised more money more quickly than it has for any previous cause."
The total value of funds, materials, and insurance available to rebuild the churches at the time of the Wall Street Journal article exceeded $18 million, not including the value of services and labor pledged by the United Way, Promise Keepers, Habitat for Humanity, unions, students, and others. The NCC itself estimated that for about $8.5 million each of the 43 churches on its list could be rebuilt and upgraded with improvements such as day-care centers and recreation rooms.
The Wall Street Journal reported that at least $3.5 million of the excess funds would be "earmarked for what Mac Charles Jones, a NCC official calls 'program advocacy' -- seminars and other forums that will not only address racism but matters of 'economic justice' and 'interlocking oppressions from gender to homophobia.'" Other sources had previously indicated that large sums of money would also be given directly to the CDR and other leftist groups. The article went on to question whether it was appropriate for the NCC to divert funds collected from donors who thought they were helping to rebuild burned churches.
New church fires made headlines across the country during June and July, and the recently dispatched army of federal agents began to arrest suspects. One was a 13-year old white girl who claimed to be a Satanist. Another was a black man who had hoped to generate business for his brother's construction company. As it gradually became clear that no widespread conspiracy connected the fires, the intensity of the media coverage began to lessen, and the tone became a shade more moderate. Some later reports even suggested that those who burned churches appeared to have a variety of motives. In mid-August, two former Klansmen were convicted of two 1995 arsons. This revelation made the national news for two or three days, but by September the media firestorm was essentially over.
On September 20, federal officials reported that 44 individuals had been charged with setting fire to black churches in the South, of whom 16 were themselves black. Only a few of the 28 white suspects were believed to have been racially motivated. Nearly half of all the suspects were under the age of 18.
Before the propaganda campaign, the number of racially motivated church arsons in the South, a region with a population of over 90 million, was probably less than 10 per year. By comparison, more than 620 buildings were burned and more than 50 people were killed in Los Angeles during the 1992 Rodney King riots. Afterwards, many on the political left avoided placing any blame on the rioters. The Rev. Jesse Jackson went so far as to suggest that America "must invest in hope, or pay the price of despair." In contrast, the supposed church arson outbreak was condemned without qualifications or excuses across the political spectrum.
Viewed fifteen years later, the church fires campaign was a great success for its leftist creators. The CDR and NCC raked in huge financial rewards, effectively slandered white Southerners and conservatives, and duped the media into repeating their "white supremacist" fantasies. President Clinton benefitted as well.
And their disinformation is largely remembered today as if it was a real event.
In closing, let us consider the leaders of the National Council of Churches -- ostensibly a Christian organization -- and their eager willingness to bear false witness for political and financial gain. If Jesus had been invited to attend the NCC/CDR planning sessions, he might well have excused himself to get a whip.
Scott Swett is the primary author of To Set The Record Straight: How Swift Boat Veterans, POWs and the New Media Defeated John Kerry.
Several key points in this article are taken from The Great Black Church-Burning Hoax, by Michael Fumento, 1998.