Alabama Church Fires

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Galilee Missionary Baptist Church in tiny Panola, Alabama, is not easy to find. You take the main interstate out of Birmingham, drive two hours southwest, then wind north over six different county roads. Once in Panola – population just over 100 people – you take a left on GinHouse Road, then a right on a dirt and gravel road. About a mile into the woods, past cow pastures and long-abandoned barns, you find the church. Or, what remains of it: a pile of ashes, surrounding the concrete stairs and iron railing that once welcomed worshippers. Pastor Bob Little was born and raised in this church.

“You hear about these things happening way off, but in a place as quaint and as quiet and as friendly as Panola is and you have, where Galilee is located at you pretty much have to know where you’re going and already planned these things to be able to get to Galilee. Nobody comes to Galilee without really planning to come to Galilee – it’s not something you could accidentally find.”

A dozen state and federal investigators sift through the rubble, looking for clues. They’ve got hundreds of leads to follow-up, including one that seems the most promising. Two members of another church that burned say they saw a dark SUV driving slowly by their church when they arrived moments after it was set on fire in the early morning hours. They say a white man was driving the SUV. A fact that takes on additional significance, at least for residents of Panola. The town is almost entirely African-American. Just up the road from Galilee Baptist Church, Shirley Collins sits in her closed restaurants, Bud’s Place.

“I did investigating in my head. I thought at one time I was Inspector Gadget, trying to figure out why somebody would do something like this, why these particular churches?”

She has a theory. Of the first five churches to burn – all in one night – four had predominately white congregations. One was predominately black. Of the four churches that burned earlier this week, all were black. Collins believes the white church burnings were a rouse to throw investigators off the trail of an arsonist targeting black churches.

“We as a race have made steps forward, we have come a long way. But in this society we are still, still unequal when it comes to the white race. I mean there’s so many things that black people, so many myths that black people are targeted for that are so untrue.”

“Whether it’s racially motivated or not it’s clearly a hate crime. Anytime you want to do violence to a house of the lord, that’s a hate crime in my opinion.”

Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, in advance of a visit to the affected churches today. Governor Bob Riley toured the churches earlier this week and says it’s too early to talk about motive.

“I mean when you look at these and the way that they are randomly selected, when you look at all the counties that are involved. You’ve got white churches. You’ve got black churches. It’s anyone guess right now. The investigation is going on. We’ve got over 100 ATF agents here, we’ve got FBI, we’ve got all of our state resources here and we’re going to keep them working and they’re working 24 hours a day and we hope within a relatively short period of time we can bring this to some kind of successful conclusion.”

Meanwhile, other congregations are taking precautions. Panola resident Shirley Collins worships at a Baptist church that hasn’t been hit – yet.

“Even if they have to sit out all night to ensure that you know this doesn’t happen to our church b/c I’m sure if Reverend Little and the other pastors had known that they could have been a possible target, then they would have done that very thing to ensure that their church wouldn’t have been destroyed.”

Reverend Little – of Galilee Missionary Baptist – says his church will rebuild, but not on the site of their destroyed building. That, he says, will be turned back to a field, where members can visit family buried in the cemetery and visit the site of their church, which stood for more than 60 years.