We must safeguard the refuge offered by black churches
Historically in the United States, there has been white domestic terror targeting people of color, especially Black Americans. Different tactics, like migrating to the North to flee southern terror, have been used to seek refuge and find safety. But for those who couldn’t, safety was found in the black church.
Dating as far back as the burning of the 1822 Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, there have been strategic attacks on the black church, all leading up to the to the most recent attack of the vandalism and burning of the Hopewell Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi in 2016.
Going on 200 years of black church attacks, this is far from a coincidence. The question is, why?
Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, the Church Business Administrator for the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church, Maurice Carr, has first-hand experience with church attacks. In 1963, the most infamous church bombing happened in Birmingham at the 16 Street Baptist Church.
“I didn’t go to [16 Street Baptist]. I went to 22 Avenue Baptist Church, which is only about 10 blocks from there,” Carr said.
A 15-year-old Carr could feel the tremors when the bomb exploded.
What the church can do
In the ’50s and ’60s — a time when racial tension was even more severe than it is now — there were even fewer places where Black Americans could truly be safe. One place was the black church.
In addition to being a place of religious worship, the black church also served as a place for meeting to discuss topics that were pertinent to the community.
The black church is also responsible for creating some of the early private historically black colleges and universities. Morehouse College was first known as Agusta Institute, which started in Springfield Baptist Church. Carr himself went to Lane College in Jackson, TN.
“You look at most of the private black schools, they came out of a church, so it’s essential,” Carr said.
Black churches provide after-school programs and financial aid, and they help the community through food drives and homeless shelters.
Two of the biggest Civil Rights leaders were religious figures as well. Martin Luther King Jr. was a reverend, and Malcolm X was a prominent Muslim figure. They often referenced God and Allah, respectively, in their speeches galvanizing black people during the Civil Rights era.
Disrupting the safety
This two-century tactic of destroying churches is an effort to shake the integrity of the last safe place black people can go. With enough bombings, vandalism and shootings, domestic terrorists can eradicate the concept of strength in numbers and limit the comfort of being around like people.
Dylan Roof, the gunman of the Charleston shooting, took advantage of the hospitality that black churches show. Just because a church is predominately black does not mean that it is for blacks only. The main mission of the church is to bring people closer to God no matter who you are.
Roof was probably a newcomer. All first-timers at Baptist churches are asked to stand at the beginning of service to be recognized. This tradition also happens at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church.
Reports say that he sat for an hour in the church before opening fire, killing nine people.
The fact that there were no worries about an outsider coming into the church shows the foundation of safety that the church provides. This is true especially in a city like Charleston, which has historic racial tension from the slave trade, Jim Crow and the Civil War like other southern cities, not to mention its own bouts of police brutality and the removal of Confederate symbols along with the rest of the nation.
The leaders and representatives of black churches have to ease the minds of the congregation when these attacks happen.
“First, you tell them God’s in control,” Carr said. “It’s happening because there are still people who don’t believe that we are all created equal and we are all created in the image of God.”
These kinds of attacks are continuing the implementation of fear: making black people afraid to vote, afraid to go to certain places at night, afraid to meet in masses to praise their God. It’s the old and sadly effective tactic of suppressing the disenfranchised.
“When the bottom starts to rise, and you have nobody else to fill the bottom then you have to keep the bottom down,” Carr said.
But it’s not all grim. With this current generation, we are different than our ancestors that came before us. We do not become afraid easily, and with the rise of social media, we are aware of what is going on through the willful spread of information.
“It’s not going to be as easy to inject fear into this generation as it was the last, because it’s a different era,” Carr said.
In this ongoing fight for equality and freedom, we must maintain the few places in which we can make our own freedoms and create our own roles of power. The black church must be protected and continue to be held sacred.
These opposing forces will eventually end.
“I think they need to just chill, forget about it. It’s not gone work. They are going to lose the battle,” Carr said.
The thing about the church is that it’s a symbol. No matter how many vandalisms, shootings or burnings, you can’t destroy a symbol.
Features editor Dana C. Jones is a print journalism junior. He can be reached at [email protected]