Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, a prominent African-American church in Greeleyville, S.C., caught fire late Tuesday. It is the eighth black church in the Southern U.S. to burn in 10 days.
Greeleyville, about 60 miles northwest of Charleston, S.C., has seen similar fires before, the Charleston Post and Courier reports. Mount Zion was burned to the ground by the KKK in 1995, part of a string of 30 fires in black churches that spanned two years.
An investigation into the fire's cause will begin after it is safely extinguished, chief of the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division Mark Keel told the Post and Courier. He noted that the thunderstorm that pounded the town of 375 on Tuesday evening could have ignited the church. Meteorologist Pete Mohlin of the National Weather Service told the paper that there was a lot of lightning in the area around 7 p.m., but he could not say if it had caused the fire.
Parishioners across the South are surveying the damage that a string of similar fires has caused this week, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports, starting in Knoxville, Tenn., on June 21 and moving to Macon, Ga., and Gibson County, in Tennessee, on June 23; Charlotte, N.C., on June 24; Elyria, Ohio, on June 25; and Tallahassee, Fla., and Warrenville, S.C., on June 26.
Three of those fires have been ruled arson, one was determined to be caused by a falling branch and faulty wiring, and the others remain under investigation. Several have been blamed preliminarily on lightning; weather in the South this week has been turbulent.
State senator Cezar McKnight was on the scene as the fire continued to burn at 10 p.m. “South Carolina has been through a lot the last two weeks, and we’ve made the best of a terrible situation," he said. "I would hate for this to be something somebody did on purpose to try to poison the love and fellowship.”
The Post and Courier recalled that then President Bill Clinton visited Mount Zion after it was rebuilt following the 1995 attack. His remarks at its dedication have resonance still:
“The men and women of Mount Zion have shown us the meaning of these words by refusing to be defeated and by building up this new church. Others have come together with you,” Clinton said on June 12, 1996. “The pastor told me he got contributions from all over the world to help to rebuild this church. In just a few days we’ll have a joyful noise coming out of this church ... I want to ask every citizen, as we stand on this hallowed ground together, to help to rebuild our churches, to restore hope, to show the forces of hatred they cannot win.”