Black Mississippi church torched, ‘Vote Trump’ sprayed on ruins in apparent hate crime
The Japan Times AP, Reuters Nov 3, 2016
People gather in front of Hopewell Baptist Church, which was damaged by fire and graffiti in Greenville, Mississippi, Wednesday. | COURTESY ANGIE QUEZADA / DELTA DAILY NEWS VIA REUTERS
GREENVILLE, MISSISSIPPI/JACKSON MISSISSIPPI – A Mississippi mayor is calling it a hate crime as arson investigators collect evidence at a black church that was heavily damaged by fire and tagged with “Vote Trump” in silver spray paint.
The Tuesday night fire heavily damaged the 200-member Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi.
Mayor Errick Simmons, speaking at news conference Wednesday, called the fire a “heinous, hateful, cowardly act.”
“We consider it a hate crime is because of the political message which we believe was intended to interfere with worship and intimidate voters,” Simmons said. “This act is a direct assault on people’s right to freely worship.”
The mayor said the FBI and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation are assisting the investigation.
“The fire caused heavy damage to the sanctuary and water and heat damage to the kitchen and pastor’s study,” Fire Chief Ruben Brown said.
It was put out within 12 minutes, but it took an hour and a half to extinguish hot spots, Brown said.
Arson investigators were at the scene Wednesday collecting evidence. Brown said the cause remains under investigation.
“We don’t have any suspect at time, but we are possibly talking to a person of interest,” Police Chief Delando Wilson said.
Witnesses were being interviewed and investigators were tracking down leads, he said.
“We will not rest until the culprit is found and fully prosecuted,” the mayor said.
The congregation has existed for 111 years, and will rebuild on the same site, said Caroline Hudson, the church’s pastor.
“The act that has happened has left our hearts broken but we are strong together,” Hudson said. “We are not angry, but our hearts are broken.”
Bishop Clarence Green called the fire troubling. He said that in his 21 years as a bishop, the church had never been vandalized.
“The last time someone was at the church was Tuesday around 3,” Green said.
Authorities said on Wednesday they were probing the incident as a hate crime committed one week before the U.S. presidential election.
“We’re investigating this as a hate crime,” Greenville Police Chief Wilson told a news conference. “We feel that the quote on the church is intimidating.
“It tries to push your beliefs on someone else, and this is a predominantly black church and no one has a right to try to influence the way someone votes in this election.”
Black churches in the U.S. South have long been a base of support for the Democratic Party.
During the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, southern black churches were often targets for arson and bombings by white supremacists.
“The FBI Jackson Division is aware of the situation in Greenville, and we are working with our local, state and federal law enforcement partners to determine if any civil rights crimes were committed,” the agency said in a statement.
No one was injured in the Tuesday evening blaze at Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, and the cause of the fire has not been determined, Greenville Fire Chief Ruben Brown Sr. said in a telephone interview. He said the church had been heavily damaged by the fire.
The town of some 33,000 people is about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of Jackson.
Bobby Moak, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, said it was “reprehensible to see this sort of thing.”
“Hopefully the true cause of the fire will be discovered but nothing in politics is coincidental,” Moak said in a telephone interview.
The Mississippi Republican Party declined comment.
In October, the Orange County Republican Party’s office in Hillsborough, North Carolina, was set on fire and a graffiti message left nearby said “leave town or else.”
No arrests have been made in that incident, which Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the Republican vice presidential candidate, called “political terrorism.”