Rash of Cross-Burnings Seen in Michigan

The FBI is investigating a series of cross burnings in the Detroit area. The burning crosses were among the symbols of intimidation used by segregationists during the civil rights era. Now they are part of a rash of hate crimes in a region long separated by race. Detroit Public Radio's Quinn Klinefelter reports.

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The FBI is investigating a series of cross burnings in the Detroit area. The burning crosses were among the symbols of intimidation used by segregationists during the civil rights era. Now they're part of a rash of hate crimes in a region long separated by race. Detroit Public Radio's Quinn Klinefelter reports.

QUINN KLINEFELTER reporting:

The new sod still doesn't quite blend in with the other grass in front of Greg Davis' home on a quiet side street in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn Heights, but Davis says it helps him forget the burnt ground he discovered here a few weeks ago, scorched into a 4-by-6-foot symbol of a cross.

Mr. GREG DAVIS (Resident): It's very archaic that someone would still have that kind of mind-set, and for whoever did it to believe that they're going to take me out of any neighborhood is just ridiculous. Obviously, you don't know me, you know.

KLINEFELTER: Davis is a church-going man. He says he worships the sign of the cross, but he wishes he had covered this cross more quickly, before his three young grandchildren found it.

Mr. DAVIS: My grandchildren, well, they asked `What is that in the lawn?,' you know. My wife actually came up with the answer: `Someone was trying to write the alphabet in the lawn,' you know, because I don't want them exposed to any of this foolishness at all.

KLINEFELTER: There have been similar racist acts around suburban Detroit in recent months: a black family's house vandalized with racist graffiti in June; a cross burned in front of an interracial couple's home in July. Concerned clergy began holding rallies, like this one in suburban Southfield, to meet with black residents increasingly nervous about moving into predominantly white neighborhoods.

(Soundbite of rally meeting)

Unidentified Man: One of the things that was said was how nobody has put a burning cross in their front yard, but a whole bunch of folks have now put `for sale' signs in their own yards.

KLINEFELTER: Linda Parker heads Michigan's Department of Civil Rights. She says cross burnings are a symptom of intolerance in what she calls the most segregated region of the nation. Parker says typically when black families move into white enclaves, many of their new neighbors move out.

Ms. LINDA PARKER (Department of Civil Rights, Michigan): Race continues to be the big elephant here in Michigan, and leaders do continue to have a problem in recognizing it, admitting that it's there and trying to do something to fix it.

KLINEFELTER: It's not just Michigan. Cross burnings are on the rise throughout Midwestern Rust Belt states, but some are what groups like the Ku Klux Klan now call cross lightings, which, they argue, are symbols used in religious gatherings and protected as free speech. But Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes nationwide, says cross burnings remain a universally recognized tool to terrorize.

Mr. MARK POTOK (Southern Poverty Law Center): More than half the crosses that are burned these days are not burned actually by Klansmen but by people, oftentimes teen-agers or people in their early 20s, who simply know that cross burning is a real form of racial intimidation, and so they're essentially imitating what they've heard about or seen on TV or in the movies.

KLINEFELTER: A pair of Michigan men, one age 18, the other 28, have pleaded not guilty to one of the recent cross burnings near Detroit. The other cases remain open, as do the emotional wounds inflicted on residents already staring across a wide racial divide. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.

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