What the Louisiana Church Burnings Reveal about Race in America

Race colors the very fabric of America. It punctuates our social, national, political, and religious life. Recently, in my home state of Louisiana, a 21-year-old white male set ablaze three historically Black churches in Port Barre and Opelousas in St. Landry Parish. This violence initiated yet another moment of public reflection and reckoning.

Fire consumed St. Mary Baptist Church on March 26, Greater Union Baptist Church on April 2, and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on April 4 — the date of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination. And where are we 51 years after Dr. King? The resounding answer is clear: nowhere near being a “more perfect union.” The race- and hate-based burnings of these historic African American churches in the current moment — not in some distant or elusive racist past — teaches us much about race, and religion, in America.

A precarious relationship has always existed between race and religion in the US. Lest we forget, America was not only a professed Christian nation but also a slaveholding one. And as a Black Catholic, I know all too well the darker entanglements of the Catholic Church’s role in slavery. Religious orders — Catholic congregations of priests, brothers, and nuns — enslaved Black folks. This history goes largely unacknowledged because we delude ourselves into romanticizing or sanitizing our nation’s thorny past. The race-motivated arson against the three historic Black churches fits squarely within an untoward history of hate crimes that have long targeted Black churches.

“It has been especially painful because it reminds us of a very dark past of intimidation and fear,” Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards noted during this year’s State of the State address. “Churches are sacred places, and no one should fear for their safety in their house of worship.” Churches are sanctuaries, yet Africans Americans have long known that safety is an illusion.

Black people in America do not have sanctuary from racism, hate-motivated violence, or white terrorism. Not in our churches, not in our schools, not in our nation.

Black churches were initially erected in response to racial discrimination, the maintenance of legal segregation, a weaponized white supremacy designed to subjugate Black folks. St. Mary and Mount Pleasant were each over 100 years old; Greater Union was 140 years old and its pastor, the Reverend Gerald Toussaint, said “my church has a lot of history.”

The duration of church institutions is part and parcel of our nation’s very complicated, imperfect past. Founded after the end of slavery, such houses of worship weathered the long Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and post-Civil Rights eras. Black churches are repositories that remind us of our pasts — holding baptismal, wedding, and funeral records. They have remedied assaults against Black people, our bodies, and our communities. As spiritual and political meeting places, they also housed Black folks who organized against racism, registered voters, and fought for Black Civil Rights.

Before benevolent societies, before social aid organizations, and before Black sororities or fraternities aided Black communities, Black churches met many individual and communal needs. As the epicenter of African American social and political struggles, Black churches like St. Mary, Greater Union, and Mount Pleasant provided not only spiritual uplift but served as sites of resistance against oppression, disenfranchisement, and violence. They simultaneously reaffirm Black dignity and personhood in struggles for equality and rights.

Black resilience and progress have long incited hate crimes and arson. “To see a Black church burning,” after all, “is to witness not only an assault on African Africans or their communities” but also an attack on the values and freedoms inherent in our Constitution. The burning of these three Black churches communicated racist threats of harm to Black parishioners and the larger Black community. This is precisely why white domestic terrorists commit hate crimes at Black churches, including the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama where four Black girls died.

It is why (another) 21-year old white male slaughtered the Charleston nine at Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina, and why an arsonist torched a Black church in Massachusetts after the election of Barack Obama, our nation’s first African American president. White terrorism is why there have been at least 100 reported attacks — burnings, bombings, and other hate crimes — on Black churches from the 1950s well into the 21st century. Yet, this violence says more about the perpetrators of these heinous crimes than it does about the Black community. “Please try to remember,” James Baldwin eloquently wrote, “that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity.”

What do the most recent church burnings, committed by a sheriff’s deputy’s son, tell us about race in America? What incited such hate-filled actions? Does his father, whose duty it is “to serve and protect,” harbor similar sensibilities his son enacted? Such questions illuminate the vexed relationship between Black people, the law, and policing — which, in some southern states, is a long-term manifestation of violence rooted in slave patrols. Remember, too, the FBI’s warnings of white supremacists “infiltrating local and state law enforcement,” as well as the “potential bias” and “consequences.” This admission speaks to the longer history of lynching, police-involved shootings, and state violence that leave us vulnerable and unprotected.

A white deputy’s son commits hate crimes against Black-specific targets — and that it is viewed not as suspicious but as mere happenstance — speaks volumes about race in America in 2019.

About the Author

Trimiko Melancon is an associate professor of English, African American Studies, and Women’s Studies at Loyola University, where she serves as the director of African and African American Studies. Her teaching and scholarly interests and expertise lie primarily in African American and American literary and cultural studies; critical race, gender, and sexuality studies; Black feminist theories and criticism; African American and Black German studies; and race, media, and digital as well as cultural production. She is the author of Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation and co-editor of Black Female Sexualities.