Photo credits: William Widmer/The New York Times
An arsonist burnt down the Greater Union Baptist Church, a Black church in Opelousas, Louisiana, on April 2, 2019.
It was one of three historically Black churches in St. Landry Parish that were set on fire during a 10-day period. The three fires took place in 2019 on March 26, April 2, and April 4. The churches that were destroyed in the flames had served as vital gathering places for the Black population in St. Landry for more than a century. After pleading guilty to deliberately setting fire to the churches, a 22-year-old white male, the son of a local sheriff’s deputy, was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.
Despite the fact that the accusations included no reference to race, violent assaults on Black churches and other predominately Black institutions have a long history. Black churches were well-established social and political places throughout the Civil Rights period, serving as organizational and meeting centers for Black activists combating racial segregation and injustice.
During the course of such a movement, racially motivated violence was directed against Black churches. Churches in Alabama’s Montgomery and Birmingham were the targets of well-publicized and, in some instances, lethal bombs intended at derailing civil rights initiatives and terrorizing the whole Black community. On September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was firebombed, murdering four young Black girls who were attending Sunday school services.
At least 80 Black churches had been destroyed, firebombed, or defaced by the late 1990s. “The church traditionally has been a significant communal institution in the African American community,” the Department of Justice said in a 1998 study on church arson, “thus… it was definitely troubling to see the number of churches being burnt.”
Three white males set fire to the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, Massachusetts, in November 2008, only hours after President Barack Obama was elected. Two of the guys eventually acknowledged dousing the partly constructed church with gasoline and setting it on fire in protest of the nation’s first Black president’s election.
The assaults in Opelousas on Black institutions maintained a long history of terroristic violence against the Black community that went back to the Reconstruction period. Opelousas was the location of Louisiana’s bloodiest Reconstruction-era slaughter in the autumn of 1868. Over the course of two weeks, white folks intimidated Black neighbors in order to depress their voting participation in the forthcoming election, murdering an estimated 200 people and wreaking havoc on the neighborhood.
The heinous assault terrified Black voters into silence, and no one was ever held responsible for the atrocity.