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Playing with Fire

The torching of black churches throughout the South punctuates the ugly rhetoric of the Buchanan campaign

[Jack White]

By Jack E. White

(TIME, March 18) -- Pitchfork Pat Buchanan and his devotees claim white racism is no longer a problem. He should visit the Black Belt of Alabama, where African-American churches are being torched, a black judge's home has been shotgunned, and people generally feel under siege. From this vantage, it might not seem so wise to keep waving the Confederate flag and pretending there is no difference between singing Dixie and We Shall Overcome.

In fact, all the conservative Republicans, from Newt Gingrich to Pete Wilson, who have sought political advantage by exploiting white resentment should come and stand in the charred ruins of the New Liberty Baptist Church in Tyler, a tiny hamlet 10 miles east of Selma, and wonder if their coded phrases encouraged the arsonists. Over the past 18 months, while Republicans have fulminated about welfare and affirmative action, more than 20 black churches in Alabama and six other Southern and Border states have been torched.

Despite an investigation by federal and state authorities, no one can yet say if the fires are the work of organized hate groups or lone lunatics. But to the blacks who live here, the motive is transparent: intimidation. And they believe the politicians who have stoked the fires of hatred should be held accountable for whipping up a climate in which such terrorism is thinkable.

With only 20 members and services just once a month, New Liberty never played a part in the civil rights movement. But like every other black church in every other black community across the nation, the modest pine-plank structure meant something special to its congregation. "The church stands as a symbol of black pride and self-sufficiency,'' says Rose Sanders, a black lawyer in Selma. "Burning one is as close as you can come to a lynching without killing somebody."

It is no coincidence, she believes, that the fire was set just two days before thousands gathered to commemorate the Selma demonstrations that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Last week a 19-year-old white volunteer fireman was charged with the Tyler arson. So far, he has not been linked to any group or any other church fires. But Wendell Paris, a veteran civil rights organizer, observes, "I am convinced these fires are part of a deliberate attempt to retard the progress black people have been making."

Those suspicions increased late last month when someone fired two shotgun blasts into the home of black circuit-court judge Eddie Hardaway. Although several witnesses say the gunman was black, Hardaway believes white people put him up to it. He sees no connection between the shootings and the rash of church arsons--but other blacks do. In January, Hardaway sentenced two young white men to five years in prison for vandalizing black churches in Sumter County. The day the sentences were reported in the local newspaper, fire destroyed two churches in neighboring Greene County. "Those fires," says Barrown Lankster, the local district attorney, "could have been set by someone who was angry about the sentences. We won't know until all the evidence is in."

But there is already enough evidence to indict the cynical conservatives who build their political careers, George Wallace-style, on a foundation of race-baiting. They may not start the fires, but they fan the flames.

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