Rebuilding burnt churches and the role of the news media: An inspirational lesson from 1962

April 23, 2019

It seems to be a season of the burning and bombing of churches. Three churches in Sri Lanka were targeted by suicide bombers on Easter Sunday. What appears to be an accident sent Notre Dame cathedral in Paris up in flames. Three black churches in rural Louisiana were victims of arson, the young white man who set the fires accused of a hate crime.

It’s an old story. Whatever your religious belief, churches matter to individuals and communities of faith. They are easy targets for those who practice hate and intolerance. When they are destroyed, folks are moved to rebuild them.

The fire at Notre Dame on the run-up to Holy Week moved many – including non-Christians and atheists — to contribute to a rebuilding fund. One early report said pledges had exceeded a billion dollars.

Inspired by events in Paris, donors looked to Louisiana. A fund set up to rebuild those churches has received more than $2 million.

Like I said, it’s an old story.

This incendiary church news evokes memories of African American churches burned down or bombed by night-riding terrorists in the South during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The cases I know best occurred in 1962 in rural Georgia. Black churches in Terrell County had become locations of civil rights activism with an emphasis on voting rights.

This account comes from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Race Beat” by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff:

The segregationists in Terrell county acted with swiftness. … Mount Olive Baptist Church was one of four black churches in Sasser, Dawson, and Leesburg that were burned to the ground less than a month after the Justice Department filed its suit (against voting rights violations). Three voting rights activists in Dawson were injured by shotgun blasts. Homes in a neighboring county were pelted with shots from shotguns and rifles.

These crimes attracted national attention, including that of President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in baseball in 1947, and whose 100th birthday is being celebrated this year, visited the burnt ruins of the churches and offered his support. When the churches were rebuilt, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled from Atlanta to dedicated them.

What is relevant to journalists — especially opinion writers and editorialists — is how the churches were rebuilt. Enter Gene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, who, in addition to his leadership duties, wrote a signed daily column for the paper every day from 1960 to 1968. He and publisher Ralph McGill became influential for their more progressive editorial positions on matters of race. Both won Pulitzer Prizes for their columns. Both had grown into influential leaders not just in Atlanta but across the South and beyond. And — this is important — both were white men raised in the segregationist South who understood the moral crisis that sat on the soul of white Southerners who were resistant to change. How do you move such people?

Back to “The Race Beat”:

In Atlanta, Eugene Patterson wrote a column both tweaking right-thinking white people, those who professed to be both religious and segregationists, and inviting them to pony up contributions to help rebuild the churches. He went so far as to nominate the pastor of the segregated First Baptist Church in Atlanta to be treasurer of the drive. Patterson specifically declared that he didn’t want contributions from black people. White people had probably burned those churches, he wrote, so white people would pay to rebuild them.

The word “reparations” has the word “repair” in it, and we have, in Patterson’s morally creative solution, the idea that white Southerners had a responsibility to manage the consequences of their intolerance — even their apathy.

In 2002, with Southern historian Ray Arsenault, I edited a collection of Patterson’s columns titled “The Changing South of Gene Patterson: Journalism and Civil Rights 1960-1968.” Among more than 100 columns are four devoted to repairing the black churches.

The first, published Sept. 11, 1962, is a three-paragraph announcement:

There has been some talk that money is going to be raised in the North to rebuild the Mt. Mary and Mt. Olive Baptist churches which were burned Sunday at Sasser, Ga.

But many Georgians will feel the honor of the South is involved in this matter. Honestly differing views on segregation exist in our state. But church-burning is not approved anywhere in Georgia as an acceptable method of expressing them. Instead of letting other sections of the country rebuild the churches that were burned in our section, some Georgians will want to demonstrate that we can handle these matters on our own.

… Any Georgian who wishes to contribute any amount, no matter how small, to the rebuilding of the two Baptist churches may mail a check, payable to “Church Fund,” to the Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta, Ga., and it will be conveyed to the two congregations. Dr. Roy McClain, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, will act as treasurer of the fund.

The rhetorical strategies embedded in this bulletin are worth noting at a time of our own polarized political culture. Patterson does not say to white Southerners: “Because of your deplorable stand on segregation, terrorists burned those churches down.” Instead, he implies that regional pride and religious motivation can lead people, intolerant on matters of race, to a good action: the rebuilding of the churches.

That he should ask a white pastor of a segregated Baptist church to act as treasurer is brilliant. Patterson was capable of the most passionate attacks against hatred and violence, but his ultimate goal was a conversion of the white Southern spirit, that the South could change and the sky would not fall.

“I know what you are trying to do,” said one of his readers. “You are trying to make us believe that we’re better than we are.”

Two days later, Patterson wrote about the spirit of the contributors, with these specific quotes:

“We are sorry it can’t be more, but being retired for a number of years, we feel this is the best we can do,” wrote an elderly couple who donated $10 (close to $100 in 2019 money).

“I hope the two churches can be rebuilt from help entirely from Georgia citizens,” from an Atlanta woman, donating $5.

“The burning of these churches is a very dark blot on Georgia history,” wrote a woman, giving $1.

“I am sure that the Christians of all churches deplore the burning, and we in the South want to restore them ourselves.” $2.

On and on came the small contributions, Patterson helping white Southerners find a different voice on matters of social justice.

In a Thanksgiving column Nov. 22, 1962, Patterson honored the generosity of all who contributed to the rebuilding. Of all the messages, he wrote, “None was more eloquent than the message from a 16-year-old Georgia boy penciled on tablet paper to which he had taped 25 cents as a token of his feeling about church burning.” The boy wrote, “I don’t see no cause for that kind of doing.”

Hundreds of envelopes — a forerunning of crowdsourcing, perhaps — raised $10,030, close to $100,000 in today’s money, not enough to rebuild the churches, but enough to pay the bills for the initial costs of “lumber, nails, masonry and mortar.” Patterson concludes:

Other groups have raised other monies to finish filling the rebuilding needs of these and other burned churches. Joseph Amisano, the Atlanta architect, is designing modest churches free for the congregations. We hope he will remember to work a little stained glass into the design so that one of the most moving offers can be accepted; the Trappist monks in the monastery of Conyers, who live in silence without any worldly goods, have asked if they may make some stained glass with their own hands as their contribution to the rebuilding.

Thanksgiving seemed to be the right kind of day for giving this report.

The Christian Holy Week concurrent with the Jewish Passover seemed the right time to encourage the rebuilding of cathedrals and churches, especially those destroyed not by accident but by hate. An ancient icon of Christ is the Phoenix, who rises from the ashes.

One day all these houses of worship will rise again. Gene Patterson has offered a model of reconciliation and reparation that journalists should study as they seek to find their own way in our own time.