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What It Means to Burn Down a Black Church

Exploring the relentless tradition of arson in the US.
What It Means to Burn Down a Black Church
Image: Seth Hahne

“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”

- from “Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall

Some 60 years ago, the burning of black churches was a common form of racial violence; according to civil rights historian Taylor Branch, at the height of the civil rights movement, a black church was bombed or burned every week. Most historians agree that back then, opponents of black civil rights saw the burning of black churches as a way to reinforce pre-Civil War power structures, some of which had been legally dismantled with the abolition of slavery. The law may have granted black people their freedom, but racial violence reinforced the idea that white people still controlled where, how, and even whether they lived.

And yet, even in the ostensibly ...

July/August
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