A black church in Greenville, Mississippi, was set on fire on Tuesday night. Fire fighters arrived to find Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church “heavily engulfed in flames,” Mayor Errick Simmons said in an interview; the fire took nearly an hour to contain. No one was in the church at the time, and no one was injured. On the side of the church, beneath the blackened windows and roof, the words “Vote Trump” have been spray painted.
The fire is being investigated as a hate crime, Simmons said. Federal authorities, including the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and Explosives, are helping local authorities with the investigation, which is part of the standard procedure for church fires. “We’re very cautious in this climate, in this day and time, to make sure we’re very deliberate in investigating matters like this,” Simmons said. This fire was “a direct assault on people’s right to free worship,” he said, and later added during a press conference, “I see this as an attack on the black church and the black community.”
In September, Simmons said, city officials found the word “nigger” painted on a boat front down by Greenville’s levee on the Mississippi River. The 34,000-person city is predominantly black, and while there is “a concerted, intentional effort for racial reconciliation among the races” in Greenville, he said, there have also been “cowardly acts of folks doing something.” In the days leading up to the election, the city will be placing additional patrols around all places of worship.
By and large, Simmons said, he expects the people of Greenville and the surrounding county of Washington will support Hillary Clinton.
Arson is notoriously difficult to prove. Last summer, when a spate of fires took place at black churches in South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, and elsewhere, investigators looked into whether they were religiously or racially motivated crimes—if the fires were intentionally set at all. Unless someone leaves “you a message in some way that makes it very obvious,” a staffer for the National Fire Protection Association told me at the time, it’s hard to know whether or not a burning was motivated by hate.
In this case, though, someone left a calling card about politics. It’s not yet clear who set the fire, if anyone set it; whether the person who set the fire is the same person who wrote the graffiti; or why, if the fire was intentional, Hopewell M.B. Church was the target. One thing is clear, though: At some point, someone decided to attach the name of Trump to a burned black church.
This act comes with heavy symbolism in the United States. Black churches have long been burned in acts of intimidation and hatred; in the Jim Crow South, members of hate groups would leave flaming crosses on churchyard lawns. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, came at a time of extreme racial division in the United States; it was that crime, which killed four young black girls, that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “The black church has always been a symbol of the community,” Simmons said during a press conference. When he met congregants in Hopewell M.B. Church on Tuesday night, “I talked to folks who were fearful. I talked to folks who were intimidated. And quite frankly, [they] were saddened and crying,” he said. “That should not happen in 2016. It happened in the ’50s. It happened in the ’60s. But it should not happen in 2016.”
Less than a week away from Election Day, America is having to contend with violence. Trump supporters, including some white nationalists, are allegedly planning to monitor polls, especially in places with large populations of black voters, and local political parties have already reported incidents of harassment. This month, a local Republican political office in Hillsborough, North Carolina, was firebombed, with the message “Nazi Republicans leave town or else” spray painted on a building nearby.
This is a tense time in American politics. The burning of Hopewell M.B. Church is a sign of how bad things have gotten, and what may be still to come. “What we have to do is come together,” Simmons said. “The only thing that conquers hate is love.”