Arsonists Target Black, White Alabama Churches
ED GORDON, host:
Federal investigators are looking for two white men for questioning in connection with a string of church fires in central Alabama. Nine churches were burned, five are confirmed arsons and race may be a factor. Yesterday Alabama Governor Bob Riley said he believes the fires are linked.
Reporter Tanya Ott, of member station WBHM in Birmingham, is following the story.
TANYA OTT reporting:
Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in tiny Panola, Alabama, is not easy to find. You take the main interstate out of Birmingham, drive two hours southwest, then wind north over six different county roads. Once in Panola, population just over 100 people, you take a left on Jenhouse(ph) Road, then a right on a dirt and gravel road, about a mile into the woods, past cow pastures and long abandoned barns, you find the church, or what remains of it, a pile of ashes surrounding the concrete stairs and iron railing that once welcomed worshipers. Pastor Bob Little was born and raised in this church.
Pastor BOB LITTLE (Galilee Missionary Baptist Church): You hear about these things happening way off, but in a place as quaint and as quiet and as friendly as Panola is, you have to, and where Galilee is located at, you pretty much have to know where you're going, have already planned these things to be able to get to Galilee. Nobody comes to Galilee without really coming to Galilee. That's the only, it's nothing you could accidentally find.
OTT: A dozen state and federal investigators sift through the rubble, looking for clues. They've got hundreds of leads to follow up, including one that seems the most promising. Two members of another church that burned say they saw a dark SUV driving slowly by their church when they arrived moments after it was set on fire early in the morning hours.
They say a white man was driving the SUV, a fact that takes on additional significance, at least for residents of Panola. The town is almost entirely African-American.
Just up the road from Galilee Baptist Church, Shirley Collins sits in her closed restaurant, Bud's Place.
SHIRLEY COLLINS (Panola Resident and Restaurant Owner): I did investigating in my head. I thought at one time I was Inspector Gadget, trying to figure out why someone would do something like this. Why these particular churches?
OTT: She has a theory. Of the first five churches to burn, all in one night, four had predominantly white congregations. One was predominantly black. Of the four churches that burned earlier this week, all were black. Collins believes the white church burnings were a ruse to throw investigators off the trial of an arsonist targeting black churches.
COLLINS: We as a race have made steps forward. We have come a long way. But in this society we are still, still so unequal when it comes to the white race. I mean, there's so many things that black people, so many myths that black people are targeted for, which are totally untrue.
Representative ARTUR DAVIS (Democrat, Alabama): Whether it's racially motivated or not, it's clearly a hate crime. Anytime you want to do violence to a house of the Lord, that's a hate crime, in my opinion.
OTT: Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, in advance of a visit to the affected churches today. Governor Bob Riley toured the churches earlier this week and says it's too early to talk about motive.
Governor BOB RILEY (Republican, Alabama): I mean, when you look at these and the way they are randomly selected. When you look at all the counties that are involved, you got white churches, you got black churches, it's anyone's guess right now.
The investigation is going on. We've got over 100 ATF agents here. We've got FBI. We've got all of our state resources here. We're going to keep them working and they're working 24 hours a day. And we hope, within a relatively short time, that we can bring this to some kind of successful conclusion.
OTT: Meanwhile, other congregations are taking precautions. Panola resident Shirley Collins worships at a Baptist church that hasn't been hit yet.
Ms. COLLINS: Even if they have to sit out all night to ensure that, you know, this doesn't happen to our church. Because I'm sure if Reverend Little and the other pastors had known that they could have been a possible target, then they would have done that very thing to ensure that their church wouldn't have been destroyed.
OTT: Reverend Little, of Galilee Missionary Baptist, says his church will rebuild but not on the site of their destroyed building. That, he says, will be turned back to a field where members can visit family buried in the cemetery and visit the site of their church which stood for more than 60 years.
For NPR News, I'm Tanya Ott.
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