Days after the Charleston massacre, several predominantly black churches in the South have burned down. Now federal officials are investigating whether any of the blazes—three of which have been ruled arson—could be hate crimes.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which highlighted the rash of fires, said the incidents “may not be a coincidence” in the wake of Dylann Roof killing nine people at a historically black church. Since the June 17 shooting, Southern states have also been embroiled in a debate over flying the Confederate flag.
“We’re in a very intense moment in which one man has tried to start a race war,” Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the advocacy firm, told The Daily Beast. “We’re looking at the possibility of a violent backlash building.”
“Certainly we don’t know that they were hate crimes…but it’s possible one or more of these were responses to the defeat of the Confederate battle flag or white supremacists hoping to further the race war Dylann Roof wanted to start,” Potok added.
After the 3:30 a.m. blaze that destroyed Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, S.C., on Friday, the pastor told NPR he often discovered “KKK” scrawled on the building’s outside walls.
Pastor Bobby Jones, who lives a few blocks away, could see the church’s flames from his house.
“It was devastating,” Jones told the Aiken Standard. “It was just an empty feeling. The more I talk about it, the more grievous I get.”
On Monday, state officials said the cause of the blaze was “undetermined” but that investigators “observed no element of criminal intent.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives are assisting South Carolina police with the case. The feds are also probing fires in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
The first fire was on June 21 in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Police say vandals lit up bales of hay outside College Hill Seventh-day Adventist and the congregation’s church van. The incident was ruled an arson, but officials don’t believe it was a hate crime.
Next came a June 23 arson at God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. Authorities are offering a $10,000 reward for information on the fire, which gutted most of the building.
At the time of the blaze, the front doors were locked and wired shut, but a side door was not secured, officials said. The church had been burglarized twice in recent weeks, with thieves stealing a sound system and air conditioners.
“I was shocked,” assistant pastor Jeanette Dudley told The Daily Beast. “It upset my heart to think someone had it in their heart to do such a thing.”
When asked if she thought the fire could be a hate crime, Dudley said, “None of us is thinking like that. We’re living in critical times. Things happen.”
Georgia’s FBI special agent in charge, J. Britt Johnson, told the Associated Press on Monday that the federal inquiry “doesn’t suggest that a hate crime has occurred, but rather ensures that it is getting additional scrutiny for hate crime potential.”
On June 24, authorities say arson destroyed Briar Creek Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. The three-alarm fire took an hour, 14 engines, and 75 firefighters to put out, The Charlotte Observer reported.
Aside from smoke damage, the church’s sanctuary was spared. The building’s charred education wing is unusable, so the congregation will be forced to relocate its summer camp. The damage is estimated at more than $250,000.
Pastor Mannix Kinsey is praying the fire wasn’t a racially motivated crime, given the current political “climate.”
“We are still talking about this same issue, and this is 2015,” Kinsey told the Observer. “We all have to consider what else do we need to do to actually be able to work together.”
Still, locals told the paper the fire wasn’t likely a hate crime. “There’s no hate. Here we have 200 nationalities in this neighborhood, and we get along just fine,” said one neighbor, Sam Trianti.
Authorities believe the Gibson County fire was caused by a lightning strike and the Tallahassee blaze was sparked by electrical wires.
Officials are also investigating a fire at College Heights Baptist Church in Elyria, Ohio.
Richard Benton, chief of the Elyria fire department, said arson was ruled out in the blaze that destroyed the baptist church’s sanctuary.
“That was some speculation by bystanders, but fortunately that’s not the case,” Benton told the Chronicle-Telegram.
Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Daily Beast he doubts most of the cases were racially motivated. But for now, it’s important to “sit back and wait” for the results of the investigations.
“This is striking a real chord of fear, especially in the African-American community and for perfectly legitimate reasons,” Potok said, adding that black churches have been targeted for almost their entire history. “There’s a deep well of feelings and fears.”