Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding The Churches

This problem has gone from a mountain to a molehill," jokes Abraham Kinnard, principal of Boligee's cash-strapped, all-black Paramount High School, as he inspects volunteer carpenters cutting and re-laying the school gymnasium's badly buckled wooden floor. Over the last few weeks, Principal Kinnard's mountain of repair problems has diminished thanks to the efforts of some two dozen mainly white, young volunteers from the North. The gym's hot, humid air is filled with sawdust and the sounds of buzz saws, hammering, shouts and laughter. Six high school students are perched on scaffolding, painting the gym walls white with a deep blue baseline.The work crew is part of a Quaker-run project to rebuild three black Baptist churches in rural western Alabama destroyed by arsonists since December. Nearby, the Mennonites are rebuilding a fourth burned Baptist church. Over the last 18 months, some four dozen, mostly rural black churches have been burned in 11 states, including nine in Alabama (see "Burning hate," July 8). "Since we arrived on June 1, a dozen more churches have been burned nationwide," says Harold Confer, 55, a Washington, D.C. builder and head of Washington Quaker Workcamps, which is spearheading the reconstruction project. "The president has made it the hot issue of the summer, and thousands of people from around the world have responded." Volunteers from across the United States and as far away as Tanzania and Yugoslavia have arrived in tiny Boligee (population 300) to participate in the project. In late July, with construction on the churches well ahead of schedule, the Quakers offered their services to the local public school."At first I was in disbelief, but it is real," Kinnard says. "I'd been wondering how to make the repairs before school opens and the answer finally came with our good friends." The work camp donates labor, expertise and tools, while the school furnishes the supplies and lunch.Each day, more local youngsters have shown up to help with the repairs. Work teams are also scrubbing, scouring, painting and repairing the toilets and tiles in the school's bathrooms. "In a sense, this is a recreation of racial relations in America, because for the last 200 years it's been poor black women who have scrubbed the toilets," says Phillida Hartley, 44, an Australian volunteer who initiated the school repair project. "Now the toilets in this black school are being scrubbed by American and international white people, who are doing it of their own free will, as a labor of love."The summer work camp is shaking up mores in Greene County, the poorest, smallest and, many here say, most segregated county in the state. Greene County is 82 percent black, and -- with the exception of Boligee and Eutah, the county seat -- most elected officials are African-Americans. But the civil rights movement of the '60s appears to have changed little else. "Here we have two of everything," says Henry Carter, 79, a deacon at Little Zion, one of the burned churches.In practice, if no longer in law, Greene County has black public schools and a private all-white academy; a black newspaper and a white one; a black bank and a white bank; a black public swimming pool, a predominantly white public pool and an all-white private country club; and racially separate funeral homes and cemeteries. Some doctor's offices still have separate waiting rooms, and at the Boligee Cafe, white visitors are ushered to tables in the air-conditioned back room, while blacks customarily sit at the counter in the front room.Except for the tiny, 30-member Catholic church, houses of worship in Greene County remain racially divided. "Eleven o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week," one local official asserted at a recent civic meeting called to discuss the church burnings.Churches have long been both bastions of the racial divide and focal points of the civil rights movement. In 1963, a Sunday morning bomb blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killed four young girls. At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, across the street from this historic site, art curator Carolyn McKinstry, 47, who was attending Sunday school in the church's basement the day of the blast, remains haunted by the bombing. "When I started hearing about these church burnings, it became very real," McKinstry recalls. "It was happening again. It's like the ultimate in evil. Church burnings. Church destruction." In the summer of 1965, I was working on a civil rights newspaper in Tuskegee, Ala., where black college students were trying to integrate the local white churches. Each Sunday morning ended in bloody mayhem as black worshippers and the press were beaten by angry white parishioners and local toughs. Near the end of the summer, local whites gunned down black student leader Sammy Young. Thirty years later, in Eutah, white minister Wayne Fair also paid a price for trying to break racial taboos. For eight years, Fair, a native of Alabama, was minister at Eutah's First Presbyterian, the town's oldest church. His family lived in the elegant parish house just off the quiet town square and the church paid his children's tuition at the all-white private Warrior Academy. Fair says when he and his wife Pat decided to withdraw their children from the academy because of "its cultural values, its materialism, classism, racism and emphasis on football to the hilt," some church elders were "very offended." Last year when Fair began inviting a few blacks, including one ex-convict, to attend his church, the elders held a secret meeting and unanimously voted to fire him.Fair moved his family into the all-black Martin Luther King public housing project just outside Eutah to continue, he says, working for "racial reconciliation in Greene County. We're not here to be paternalistic or prove we're God's gift to the black community, but to live out day-to-day life." Regarding the church burnings, Fair says, "The best thing we can do is show an abundance of concern, that we're not indifferent."No arrests have been made in connection with the four black churches burned in this area. The black and white communities remain deeply divided over what they believe the motives are behind the fires. Most white teachers, reporters, ministers and other community leaders interviewed in Eutah deny race is a factor in the burnings, and many hint that blacks themselves may have been responsible. "Could be by blacks who wanted racial tensions to stay or to divert attention from the community's political problems or, in two cases, to collect the insurance," said a minister's wife who asked to remain anonymous.Black pastors and politicians are incensed by such remarks. They note that the fires began just after three young white men had been convicted of vandalizing several black churches. A shot was fired into the home of the black circuit judge who sentenced the trio, two of the churches burned on the same night, and in recent months there have been a string of minor racial incidents, says city council member Spiver Gordon, the longtime local leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "I know who has a history of burning churches. It ain't black folks. It's very very troubling and upsetting [that] there's so much denial in this country about whether race is a factor," Gordon contends.The Rev. Levi Pickens, pastor of the burned Mt. Zion Baptist Church (now being rebuilt by the Quakers), told a community forum, "I've been hearing that we don't have a problem in Greene County, but I've been living here long enough to know that is wrong. We do have a racial problem." Some see the burnings as an organized conspiracy by white supremacist groups. "They are most definitely organized," says Gus Townes, director of rural training at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which is housing the volunteers. "The pattern in every church burning is pretty much the same. Whoever's doing it has been trained."Others, however, view them as part of a more generalized rising tide of hatred, fueled by extremist radio talk shows and linked to other crimes, such as the Oklahoma City bombing. John Zippert, editor of the Greene County Democrat, which is considered the black newspaper, sees the burnings as "part of a continuum. I think Reagan set the tone that somehow white people in this country were being discriminated against, and this allowed people who are more extremist the opportunity to do what they want -- to blow up buildings, burn down churches and shoot people." Zippert, a white New Yorker, came south 30 years ago to work in the civil rights movement. "This country has in many ways become more racist in an institutional way, despite all the positive things that have happened in the last generation."Arising from the ashes around Boligee are larger, more modern churches as well as a sense of purpose and community that had waned since the civil rights movement. The church burnings were intended "to instill fear, but it's backfiring," says Townes. "Instead, the church burnings have provided a much needed spark that is bringing people, both black and white, together so we can begin moving forward again."At noon each day, a team of ladies and a cluster of small children arrive at the Little Zion worksite bearing fried chicken, potato salad, corn bread, beans, greens and other fixings. While the 40-odd volunteers and local workers fill their plates, the church women entertain with gospel songs. During one recent week, eight white parishioners from an evangelical church in Kentucky arrived in a camper to join the work party. In the shadow of the nearly completed church, guitarist Terry Barnes sang an Appalachian hymn, "If you think He's just a carpenter, then look at what He built," to which the Little Zion women responded with the hand-clapping gospel lyric, "When all God's children get together, what a time."A handful of Alabama whites have joined the reconstruction project, but none from Greene County. Some local white churches have, however, collected funds and sent meals to the worksites, and the Eutah Chamber of Commerce recently hosted a dinner for the volunteers. Only Buddy Lavender, Boligee's controversial and loose-tongued mayor, has voiced public opposition to the Quaker construction project. "Some of those who have come to rebuild are outside agitators," says Lavender. "They have caused a lot of friction among the races with what they're doing."On Sundays, the volunteers worship with the tiny congregations from the burned churches at makeshift locations. Charlie Means, 33, a deacon at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, says: "You can't imagine walking into your Sunday school and seeing 15 blacks and 25 white people, all feeling the same Holy Spirit. I can do nothing but thank God that I'm alive in 1996 to see this happen. Dr. Martin Luther King said many times that he had a dream. But I'm one of the people among the living that is seeing his dream become a reality."AUTHOR BIO: Martha Honey is a Washington-based journalist and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. -30-

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