When Dylann Roof allegedly opened fire at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last week, it was an act of terror of the kind that happens all too often in black houses of worship. Roof has been charged with shooting and killing nine people, including senior pastor of the church and South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.
Black communities in America have long used the church as a place to come together, to worship and to discuss social issues without fear of being targeted. But the ugly truth is that black churches have always been targets. White supremacists have sought to terrorize and destroy these institutions for as long as they’ve existed.
Although many church burnings, bombings and other hate crimes went unreported before and during the civil rights era, we know of at least 91 cases since the 1950s when black churches in America were the targets of what can only be described as domestic terrorism. (Our list contains relatively few incidents from the 1970s and 1980s, in part because exhaustive records from those years are hard to find. However, one report has found that there were 1,420 church fires in 1980 alone. There was a spike in violence against churches in the 1990s, which led Congress to pass the Church Arson Prevention Act in 1996.)
Attacks on historically black churches, 1950s-present
Our list only dates back as far as 1956, but church bombings and burnings were happening well before then, and it also wasn’t uncommon for pastors to be targeted at their homes. On Dec. 25, 1956, in Birmingham, Alabama, the home of civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was damaged in an explosion, along with the church next door.
On Sept. 15, 1963, four black schoolgirls were killed by a bomb at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church before Sunday morning service. It was the third explosion in the city in 11 days after federal legislation mandated the integration of Alabama schools. More than 8,000 people attended a public funeral held for three of the girls. The outrage over the bombing helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1973, someone torched the Cartersville Baptist Church in Reston, Virginia, causing the pulpit and pews to fall into the basement. The church had been home to a congregation of 50 black people. Several years later, the Second Wilson Church, a meeting place for civil rights activists in Chester, South Carolina, was gutted when a flame spread from the windows to the ceiling shortly after a protest.
Cartersville Baptist Church
Dec. 16, 1979
Second Wilson Church
Chester, South Carolina
In 1980, police investigated a series of mysterious fires that damaged at least three black churches in New York City between April 23 and May 6.
First Baptist Church
New York City
St. John’s Baptist Church
New York City
May 4, 1980
New York City
In the mid-1990s, there was a spike in reported church fires. More than 30 black churches were burned in an 18-month period in 1995 and 1996, leading Congress to pass the Church Arson Prevention Act.
Terrorism against the black church is still an issue today. Five years before the mass shooting in Charleston, a man in Crane, Texas, burned down a Faith in Christ Church to gain status with a white supremacist gang.