No Sanctuary: Why We Cannot Rest Until We Find #WhoisBurningBlackChurches

by Anna Gibson

A recent hashtag on Twitter, #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches is addressing the disturbing rash of arson attacks against black churches in the south since the Charleston Shooting. Seven churches have been victimized thus far, in Ohio, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia. Despite this, coverage of these attacks is nowhere to be found on any major news network. For black activists, this sends a direct message to the black community: crimes against our community don’t matter, and should be ignored.

This negligence is bound to have severe consequences. History has taught us that if crime continues to go unpunished, they will increase in severity. Groups of people without protection are easy targets. This is even more so for black and brown people who are the most marginalized groups in the United States.

It’s also very telling that we’re forced to bring attention to our own stories. Many have noted that if these churches were predominantly white, news coverage would have begun a veritable manhunt, calling on people to contact law enforcement should they note something suspicious, and probably catching the culprit(s) in a matter of days.

Acts of terror against black churches is nothing new, and had the purpose of instilling fear in the hearts of black people, especially since black religion and politics have been so closely interrelated, even during slavery. The black church has always been more than a place of worship. If black people were simply worshipping, our churches wouldn’t have been targeted. Christianity was introduced to slaves shortly after we were brought to the United States by way of the Middle Passage. However, the threat against black people and the black church was palatable even then. According to the African American Registry, one slave master stated:
“The white folks would come in when the colored people would have prayer meeting[s], and whip every one of them. Most of them thought that when colored people were praying it were against them.”

They were right. It wasn’t long before slave masters recognized that black people were participating in more than just prayer. The church also functioned as a political powerhouse, where information about the slave trade, potential uprisings, family whereabouts, and even information about the Underground Railroad would circulate.

In the 1960’s, Dr. Martin Luther King made his parishioners the core of his political movement. He would actively inform and organize church members from his pulpit. The Montgomery Bus Boycott, sit-ins, and various other protests were all planned from within the church.

In the 1960s Birmingham, Alabama dealt with terrorists attacks from white supremacists so frequently that people called the city "Bombingham." One of the most tragic bombings in Birmingham took place September 15th, 1963. The church was bombed before early morning service; four little girls died and a few dozen others were injured. It was thought that the KKK bombed the church in retaliation against the strides black political leaders were making in the Civil Rights Movement.

In this way, we can see how deeply black faith and black politics are intertwined and why churches would pose such a threat to white supremacists. The logic then and now, is that if they continue to terrorize us, then perhaps we will become scared and “know our place,” submitting to oppression once and for all.

One could assume the burnings of black churches are a direct attack against black people, black faith and spirit of black resilience illustrated most distinctly in the response to the Charleston shootings. Just as white supremacy is a symbol of terror, our resilience is a psychological symbol of that terror being thwarted.

It’s nothing short of a victory for the LGBTQIA community that gay marriage is finally legal across the United States. Obama’s touching rendition of Amazing Grace was spectacular and perfectly codifies the spirit of resilience that black people possess in the face of tragedy. However, America shouldn’t use these things as a reason to divert attention away from news of terrorist attacks against the black community.

These terrorist attacks against black churches being suspiciously absent from major news networks have serious ramifications. It’s very easy to quietly sweep an ugly truth under the rug. Charleston was representative of white supremacy in its rawest form, symbolic of centuries of hate. This truth is uncomfortable. It would be very easy to deflect attention away from the truth of what occurs in this nation. However, the history of structural racism— whether subtle or overt—should have just as prominent a platform as any other breaking news topics that have emerged in the past week. We cannot heal as a people unless we confront and embrace our history no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.

Photo: The Associated Press

Anna Gibson is a student at Wayne State University and a freelance journalist who focuses on the stories of the marginalized. If you want to get in touch with her, you can reach her on Twitter @TheRealSankofa and on Facebook under the name Anna Gibson.

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