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Clinton Vows to Help ‘Smother the Fires of Hatred’

June 8, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton declared on Saturday that racial hostility is behind a series of 30 church fires in the South and said he will devote whatever resources are needed to ``smother the fires of hatred that fuel this violence.″

``Every family has a right to expect that when they walk to church or synagogue or mosque they will find a house of worship, not the charred remnants of a hateful act done by cowards in the night,″ Clinton said in his weekly radio address.

With ministers from two of the burned-out churches standing at his side, the president said: ``We must stand up as a national community to safeguard the right of every citizen to worship in safety.″

Clinton added his support to pending legislation that would make it easier to prosecute in federal court people who attack houses of worship. The House Judciary Committee is scheduled to vote on the bipartisan legislation on Tuesday.

Agents of the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will visit churches throughout the South to advise on steps that can be taken to ward off arsonists, Clinton said.

And he said the government is establishing a new toll-free number to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to receive information about those responsible for the church fires. The number is 1-888-ATF-FIRE.

``We do not now have evidence of a national conspiracy, but it is clear that racial hostility is the driving force behind a number of these incidents,″ the president said.

As the radio speech ended, Clinton told reporters that as a son of Arkansas the burnings have a special meaning for him.

``I have vivid and painful memories of churches burned in my own state when I was a child,″ the president said.

Asked what the fires say about the state of race relations in the United States, the president replied that while race relations are improving overall, ``there are still pockets of hatred and extremism. ... But I believe the overwhelming majority of Americans are appalled by this. ... We know wherever we see it that we have to stomp it out.″

``I call on communities everywhere that churches have been burned to roll up their sleeves and rebuild these churches,″ he said in his speech. ``We must come together, black and white alike, to smother the fires of hatred that fuel this violence.″

Clinton’s call was echoed by Senate Republican leader Bob Dole, the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, who also called for swift action to bring to justice those responsible for ``these vicious acts of hate.″

``These hate crimes are wrong, evil and have no place in the United States of America,″ Dole said in a statement.

Clinton’s address brought immediate applause from black leaders.

Kweisi Mfume, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called for the immediate passage of the bill enabling federal prosecution of hate crimes aimed at churches. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich.,

one of the bill’s sponsors, said that in addition to the 30 church fires now under investigation, more than 55 other black churches have been burned or bombed in recent years.

This week federal agents entered the investigation of a suspicious fire that destroyed a former sanctuary on the grounds of the Matthews-Murkland Presbyterian Church, a black church in Charlotte, N.C.

It was at least the 30th fire at a black Southern church since early 1995 and the second this week. Authorities said that was reason enough to describe Thursday’s fire as suspicious.

Jim Johnson, assistant secretary of the Treasury for enforcement, said 11 additional ATF agents will be added this week to the 125 investigators already at work probing the fires. More than 100 FBI agents also are involved in the investigation, together with local and state law enforcement task forces.

The ATF has open cases on six black churches that burned in Tennessee, five each in Louisiana, South Carolina and Alabama, four in North Carolina, three in Mississippi and one each in Virginia and Georgia. The tally includes Thursday’s fire in Charlotte and one Monday in Greensboro, Ala.

Johnson said there have been seven arrests in connection with seven of the fires. Clinton said two of those arrested were ``known members of the Ku Klux Klan.″

Thirty-eight black ministers from the burned churches are in Washington and will meet with Attorney General Janet Reno on Sunday and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin on Monday.

Two of them, the Rev. Terrance Mackey, pastor of the Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, S.C., and the Rev. Alvin Anderson, pastor of the Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Columbia, Tenn., were in the Oval Office as Clinton spoke.

``We are happy the president is standing behind us on this one,″ Mackey told reporters.

Mackey said he would not ask church members to patrol a new church building at night because, ``I would rather count another burned church than a burned body.″

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