In the flames of a Black Lives Matter banner, stolen from a Black church and set ablaze Saturday by white supremacists at a Washington, D.C., protest, I saw the four Black girls murdered when a racist’s bomb decimated the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.
In its twitching light, I imagined the Black pastor and his eight parishioners — the Charleston Nine — executed at a Bible study five years ago in South Carolina’s historic Mother Emanuel Church by a young white man with hatred in his heart and race war on his mind.
When she saw fire consume the BLM banner that once adorned Asbury United Methodist Church, the Rev. Ianther M. Mills, its senior pastor, also found echoes of this nation’s history: “For me it was reminiscent of cross burnings.”
That is the image those racists and traitors who marched for President Trump and against democracy wanted to evoke — to stoke fears as old as America itself about the violence that stalks Black people, even in places of sanctuary.
“We are a resilient people who have trusted in God through slavery and the Underground Railroad, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, and now we face an apparent rise in white supremacy,” Mills said Sunday in a statement. “Seeing this act on video made me both indignant and determined to fight the evil that has reared its ugly head. We have been so confident that no one would ever vandalize the church, but it has happened.”
It has happened again — houses of worship targeted by hate.
Hours after Barack Obama was elected as this nation’s first Black president, in 2008, three white men angry about his historic win burned down Macedonia Church of God in Christ, a predominantly Black church in Springfield. They were later convicted for what authorities called a hate crime.
In 2018, an anti-Semitic mass shooter murdered 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Less than six months later, in 2019, a white supremacist slaughtered 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand. Like those who burned the banner and tore down a BLM sign at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, another historic Black church in the nation’s capital, both men were inspired by Trump, who has never denounced white supremacy or the violence that is its oxygen.
At Saturday’s protest against democracy and reality, the lame-duck president, riding aboard Marine One, even gave his throngs his tacit endorsement by buzzing over them on the National Mall after tweeting earlier, “I’ll be seeing them.”
Of course, he’s been silent about what his supporters did at two Black churches. He will no more condemn their actions than he has those of the armed vigilante charged with murdering two men and wounding a third at a BLM protest in Kenosha, Wis., in August. Trump would never risk muddying their message by expressing disapproval of terror campaigns against Black people.
When a Black church is vandalized, or its parishioners attacked, the intent is manifest — to drum into us that America offers no sanctuary, even in a house of God. It is an assault on the stubborn affirmation of our lives, often forged within churches that preached liberation alongside the Scriptures. Many of us learned early in our churches that our existence is resistance. And for white supremacists, that remains a constant threat. Even a church banner or sign proclaiming the value and fact of Black lives is more than they can abide and it must be destroyed.
And since they became even more prevalent after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, BLM signs have been torn down or defaced in towns and cities nationwide, including churches and homes in Arlington, Wellfleet, Lynnfield, and Mendon.
Citing the even greater challenges faced by those who founded the church 184 years ago, Mills said in her statement, “We will move forward undaunted in our assurance that Black Lives Matter and we are obligated to shout that truth without ceasing.”
We know how white supremacists feel about truth. Pushed by a rancid sense of entitlement, neither will they cease. Trump leaving the White House won’t extinguish the fires he has accelerated. Fueled by racism and hate, they will continue to burn not only for a lost election, but another lost cause from an unholy war that has never truly ended.