The crowdfunding campaign to raise money for three African American churches gutted by arson in Louisiana began a week ago, but donations surged after flames engulfed the roof of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and the outcry provoked a conversation about the disparate reactions to the tragedies.
Nearly $1 billion had been pledged to the Notre Dame rebuilding effort within hours of Monday’s blaze. The massive attention focused on the French landmark prompted Megan Romer to take note and tweet: “My heart is broken over the loss of Notre Dame. The Catholic Church is also one of the world’s wealthiest entities. If you are going to donate money to rebuild a church this week, I implore you to make it the black churches in St. Landry Parish.”
GoFundMe spokeswoman Aja Shepherd confirmed in an email that giving to the destroyed Louisiana churches increased Tuesday after Romer’s tweet and a challenge from freelance journalist Yashar Ali to his nearly 400,000 Twitter followers.
Other online reminders of the black churches’ plight followed, including this Tuesday tweet from Hillary Clinton: “As we hold Paris in our hearts today, let’s also send some love to our neighbors in Louisiana.”
Donations that totaled about $300,000 nearly a week into the campaign surged to $1.5 million by Wednesday night. The money is to be distributed equally among the three century-old churches to help them recover from the fires intentionally set from March 26 to April 4. White suspect Holden Matthews, 21, has been charged with arson and hate crimes.
Among the calls for more giving to the black churches, there was concern that they were already being forgotten as flames leapt from the roof of Notre Dame.
“It’s terrible what happened to Notre Dame. … But, 3 black churches in LA were purposely burnt down b/c of hate. Let’s not forget to be even more outraged about that,” Twitter user Joe Boyd wrote.
Native American Terrell Johnson, a 19-year-old Columbia University student and member of the Assiniboine Tribe, wondered: “Why are we not as worried about these sites being hurt that are historic to our minority groups, rather than majority groups?”
“It shows how little we are valued. These black churches, the mosque, Native American sites, they are not as valued as Catholicism or Christianity in that aspect, and it’s frustrating,” Johnson said in a Wednesday interview.
But journalist Thomas Chatterton Williams, in a series of tweets, took issue with the notion that concern about Notre Dame could be boiled down to a matter of race.
“It’s a tragedy when black churches + mosques are bombed, burned or vandalized, but of course the world pays more attention to an 800-year-old architectural masterpiece in the heart of a city everyone visits! That’s not white supremacy, and nonwhites who love Paris aren’t dupes,” he wrote.
The Rev. Roderick Greer of St. John’s Cathedral, an Episcopal place of worship in Denver, acknowledges that Notre Dame has higher visibility as a cultural, artistic and religious landmark than the three rural church buildings in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish.
Still, in a Wednesday interview, he questioned whether white Americans would pay as much attention even if the fire happened at high-profile black churches, such as Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta or Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
“Even if Mother Emmanuel or Ebenezer or 16th Street Baptist Church went up in flames, do white Americans, in particular, have the same emotional and visceral connections that they have to Notre Dame, which is on another continent?” said Greer. “That’s such a telling commentary on the white American imagination that support for black churches lost to arson surged only in the wake of a historic European cathedral fire.”
The Rev. Mason Jack, an officer with the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, which includes the burned churches, said Wednesday he was grateful for the surge in donations. He acknowledged that the Notre Dame fire raised consciousness about the Louisiana fires but downplayed any concerns that black churches were being overshadowed or forgotten.
He said publicity surrounding all of the fires helped increase awareness of the need in Louisiana. “Maybe, for some, it was an awakening for them to bring healing and restoration,” he said.
Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this story.
Each church catered to an African American congregation. Each graced a rustic, country setting. Each fronted a small cemetery. And each is now a charred disaster scene, the result of three conflagrations that brought echoes of civil rights-era violence to Opelousas, a city of about 16,000 people in rural St. Landry Parish, Louisiana.
Thursday brought news of an arrest.
At a news conference, Gov. John Bel Edwards identified the suspect as Holden Matthews, a 21-year-old white man. He faces three counts of simple arson of a religious building on the state charges, said state Fire Marshal Butch Browning, who added that federal investigators also were looking into whether hate motived the fires.
St. Landry Sheriff Bobby Guidroz confirmed that Matthews is the son of a deputy. Guidroz said the father knew nothing of his son’s involvement and broke down over the arrest, which he helped facilitate by getting Matthews away from home.
Harry Richard — pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church, the site of the second fire — said he’s relieved about the arrest: “This takes a lot of the pressure off us.”
But the Rev. Freddie Jack, of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association said, “I would like to know whether he was working alone or not. We can’t let our guard down.”
At the news conference, however, Browning was confident that the danger to churches had ended. “This community is safe again,” said Browning, surrounded by local and federal authorities who had worked on the case. “We are extremely unequivocally confident that we have the person who is responsible for these tragic crimes.”
Edwards said the fires had stirred concern among people around the nation. “It has been especially painful because it reminds us of a very dark past of intimidation and fear,” Edwards said.
A Facebook page that appears to belong to Matthews shows him with the words “black metal” spray painted on a wall behind him. He also posted a comment on a movie’s portrayal of black metal musician Varg Vikernes, a far right figure convicted of manslaughter and arson at three churches. Black metal is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal with lyrics that often espouse Satanism and Paganism. A smaller subset of black metal bands feature neo-Nazi beliefs. The black metal scene was associated with Christian church burnings in Norway in the 1990s.
In the days leading up to the arrest, pastors and parishioners at the churches acted with dismay — and a kind of restraint.
“It’s like the ’60s again,” said Earnest Hines, a deacon at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church — the site of the last fire.
Yet Hines, and others connected to the churches, were careful not to automatically label the fires as racist acts.
“I don’t know why this happened, and we don’t need to jump to conclusions,” said Hines, a member of the church for more than 40 years. “We need to let them investigate, let the evidence come out.” Jack and Richard expressed similar sentiments.
The first fire torched the St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre last month. Days later, the Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas were burned. Each was more than 100 years old.
The churches were empty at the time of the fires, and no one was injured. Investigators with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were still combing the scene at Mount Pleasant and warning onlookers away on Wednesday, a week after the fire.
Investigators had retreated from the ruins of St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, a town just outside of Opelousas and the site of the first fire on March 26. There and at Greater Union, which burned April 2, evidence of the fires’ intensity was more visible. Exterior walls of brick and wood had collapsed on rows of metal folding chairs at Greater Union. All that was left of what looked to have been an upright piano was the lattice-work of steel strings.
McGill reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writers Stacey Plaisance in Opelousas, Louisiana, and Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland, contributed to this report.
Actress Vivica A. Fox, left, poses for a photo before President Donald Trump speaks at the 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
The Democrats seeking the White House have issued proposals on overhauling education, agriculture, technology and immigration. But none of the candidates has made specific pitches on how he or she would transform the nation’s criminal justice system.
Although the Democratic candidates have talked broadly about systemic racism — with several backing some form of reparations to the descendants of slaves — none has gone deep on mass incarceration or police reform.
It’s an omission that has frustrated some activists who hoped such issues would receive greater attention in a Democratic primary that includes two black candidates and is dominated by an overall push to the left on many social fronts. Some are worried it’s an early sign that candidates won’t pay enough attention to voters of color.
“This is not a marginal issue,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is hosting several White House hopefuls this week at his annual social justice convention in New York. “Are they going to keep consent decrees? Are they going to deal with mass commutations? They’re going to have to deal with these questions.”
Sharpton pressed some Democratic presidential contenders on the issue Wednesday during the first day of his National Action Network conference. Under questioning from Sharpton, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said he would reverse an order from President Donald Trump’s Justice Department that restricted the federal government’s ability to use court-enforced consent decrees when state and local law enforcement agencies are accused of abuse. Those agreements, popular during President Barack Obama’s administration, generally provide a road map for changes in law enforcement practices.
“There must be accountability for enforcement of the law, there must be accountability for use of force, and federal funds to local police departments and sheriff’s departments must be tied to accountability,” O’Rourke said.
Other candidates including Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg will appear at the conference in the coming days and could face similar questions.
Such venues present an opportunity for voters to hold candidates accountable on issues specific to the black community. Sharpton’s conference is the year’s first such gathering of civil rights leaders and activists featuring so many of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls.
It comes at an awkward moment for Democrats as Trump, who has little support among black voters, has sought to portray himself as an advocate for criminal justice. He’s touted signing legislation last year aimed at addressing racially disparate federal prison sentences for crack cocaine offenses.
Although they have avoided some specifics, multiple candidates have taken steps to address systemic racism.
In the Senate, Booker has reintroduced legislation to decriminalize marijuana, and he was a co-sponsor of the First Step Act targeting crack sentencing. Before running for president, Harris proposed bipartisan federal legislation to end cash bail. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called for criminal justice reform in her announcement speech in February but didn’t offer details on what that would look like.
Speaking at Sharpton’s conference on Wednesday, former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro spoke powerfully of the need for reparations. O’Rourke said he would support legislation that would create a commission to study the issue.
“Criminal justice reform is not a second-tier issue for African Americans,” said Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher. “Particularly for younger African Americans, it is competing against, if not trumping, some rather conventional issues for the attention and concern of these voters. It is a very good issue to home in on, and it makes all the sense in the world for them to talk about it.”
Criminal justice reform was thrust into national politics in 2014 with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which highlighted the killings of black people by police and exposed patterns of bias in departments across the country. Under Trump, the Justice Department has generally taken a different stance on such issues, calling for less oversight and more praise of local law enforcement. In the years since, calls for reform have ushered in new local leadership, from district attorneys to mayors in cities like Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Cleveland.
The 2020 Democratic primary offers a fresh opportunity and bigger stage to wrestle with criminal justice, particularly with the entry of Harris, whose credentials as a former prosecutor are part of her narrative and criticism, or the potential entry of former Vice President Joe Biden, who may have to reckon with his role as the Senate Judiciary chairman who presided over the passage of the 1994 crime bill.
It will likely not be the last time the candidates meet under such circumstances, with the National Urban League conference in Indianapolis and the NAACP convention happening in Detroit, both set for July. Black Lives Matter is also considering hosting a Democratic town hall during the primary.
But, Sharpton points out, his conference is the first and only convening ahead of the first Democratic debate in June in Miami, and he said he wants criminal justice reform on stage there.
Brittany Packnett, who is active in the Black Lives Matter movement, echoed that hope. With so many Democrats seeking to gain a leg up in the primary, she said it’s important that criminal justice “doesn’t completely fall off the agenda.”
At an Atlanta church service dedicated to youth Sunday, the presidential candidate compared leadership to a relay race in which each generation must ask themselves “what do we do during that period of time when we carry that baton.”
Then she added with a smile that for “the older leaders, it also becomes a question of let’s also know when to pass the baton.”
The 54-year-old senator — one of the younger contenders for the White House in 2020 — did not mention any other presidential hopeful or tie her remarks to the Democratic presidential scramble. Her spokeswoman said she only wanted to encourage the youth at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
Her commentary to the congregation once led by Martin Luther King Jr. comes as former Vice President Joe Biden, 76, considers whether to join a field that already includes Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is 77. Both men have run for president before and fallen short.
‘Biden and Sanders are seen as strong contenders for the Democratic nomination, though other candidates and some voters have emphasized the need for a more youthful approach to try and beat President Donald Trump in the general election. Several other candidates in the race, including two governors, are also in their late sixties.
Harris noted Sunday that King was 26 when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycotts that pushed him to the forefront of the civil rights movement.
Later Sunday, Harris told a rally at Morehouse College in Atlanta that Attorney General William Barr should testify under oath on Capitol Hill, rather than just submit the written summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Russia investigation.
The Justice Department said Sunday that Mueller’s team did not find evidence that Trump’s campaign “conspired or coordinated” with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election. Mueller also investigated whether Trump obstructed justice but did not come to a definitive answer.
Other highlights of Sunday campaigning:
Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand assailed President Donald Trump as a coward who is “tearing apart the moral fabric of the vulnerable,” as she officially started her campaign for president.
The senator spoke in New York Sunday, feet away from one of Trump’s signature properties, the Trump International Hotel and Tower.
She said that instead of building walls as Trump wants to do along the U.S.-Mexico border, Americans build bridges, community and hope.
Gillibrand also called for full release of Mueller’s report in the Russia investigation. Attorney General William Barr released a summary Sunday afternoon, but Democrats want to see the full details.
Gillibrand is trying to position herself in the crowded field of Democrats seeking the party’s nomination. While some hopefuls have shied away from mentioning Trump, Gillibrand has not hesitated to do so.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren said Sunday the National Rifle Association is holding “Congress hostage” when it comes to stemming gun violence.
The Massachusetts senator and Democratic presidential candidate tells a campaign rally that if seven children were dying from a mysterious virus, “we’d pull out all the stops till we figured out what was wrong.” But in terms of gun violence, she said the NRA “keeps calling the shots in Washington.”
Warren finished a two-day campaign trip to New Hampshire with an event at a middle school in Conway Sunday afternoon.
Warren focused much of her speech on her approach to economics, but paid special attention to unions Sunday. She said more power needs to be put back in the hands of workers.
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke told voters in Las Vegas Sunday that President Donald Trump bears blame for the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border but responsibility lies with everyone in the country to fix the situation.
O’Rourke spoke Sunday to more than 200 people packed into and snaking around a taco shop on the city’s north end. He said immigrant families are leaving their home countries and journeying on foot because they have no other choice.
The former Texas congressman said desperate families were broken up in the U.S. when they were at their most vulnerable and desperate moments, and what happened to them “is on every single one of us.”
In this Feb. 9, 2019 photo, Brig. Gen. Milford H. Beagle, Jr. commanding general of Fort Jackson, speaks to the president of the Sgt. Isaac Woodard Historical Marker Association following the dedication ceremony in Batesburg-Leesville, S.C. Beagle, Jr. who now leads the Army’s Fort Jackson in South Carolina is descended from a soldier who served there in a segregated military more than a century ago. (AP Photo/Christina Myers)
Pvt. Walter Beagles arrived at Camp Jackson, South Carolina, in 1918, an African American draftee in a segregated Army that relegated black soldiers to labor battalions out of a prejudiced notion that they couldn’t fight.
More than 100 years later, his great-grandson now serves as the base’s 51st commanding general.
Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle, Jr., a combat veteran who took command last June, admits that it gets to him, knowing he’s serving where his ancestor served but under vastly different circumstances.
“It does become pretty surreal to know that the gates my great-grandfather came through are the same gates I come through,” Beagle said. “You always reflect back to you’re standing on somebody’s shoulders. Somebody put that stair in place so you can move one more rung up.”
Beagle hails from the same town where his great-grandfather came from: Enoree, South Carolina. The family dropped the “s” from the end of its name during his grandfather’s lifetime.
He says he felt compelled to enter the infantry as a young man at least partly because African Americans once were largely shunted aside — considered inferior and unsuited to combat.
“That was one thing I did reflect on. Somebody at some point in time said your particular race can’t do that,” Beagle said. “At some point our ancestors fought so we could be in those front-line units and those combat units.”
Beagle has served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, among his many postings.
His great-grandfather, who died in 1985 at the age of 94, didn’t talk much about his Army service, Beagle said. But the general enlisted the help of Fort Jackson Basic Combat Training Museum director and curator Henry Howe who found more details about Pvt. Beagles’ military service during the Great War.
“Gen. Beagle gave me a copy of his draft card. He did give me a roster of Fort Jackson, but we were able to find out a little bit more information, specifically the days he came in and the units he was with and that he deployed to … France in late 1918,” Howe said.
At Camp Jackson, Beagles would have learned fundamental drills and how to behave as a soldier with the 156th Depot Brigade, but he didn’t get much training in combat arms. He moved into the 346th Labor Battalion where his jobs included loading and unloading ships, building roads and digging ditches — labor intensive work.
“The majority of the African Americans were pushed off into the support units,” Howe said. “Oftentimes, we in the military look at the combat arms as the glory, but it’s overwhelmingly the support people that give the opportunity for victories.”
The Army that Pvt. Beagles served in was highly segregated, as was the wider society, said American studies professor Andrew Myers at University of South Carolina Upstate.
“As Jim Crow became more instituted in the civilian society, you saw the same thing kind of take over the military,” he said.
Racial tensions were high in some towns surrounding U.S. military camps, leading sometimes to violence.
In Houston, Texas, 1917 a clash between police officers and soldiers led to court martials and the execution of 19 African American soldiers.
“The execution … of the colored soldiers implicated in the Houston riot was one of the dark spots on the escutcheon of the Army, but it did not dampen the ardor of the colored men who went to the front for the Stars and Stripes,” Emmett J. Scott noted in his book, “The American Negro in the World War.” Scott was Booker T. Washington’s secretary before becoming a special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of War, serving as a liaison between black soldiers and the War Department.
In October 1918, Beagles was deployed to France. The Armistice ending the fighting was signed the following month.
Following the war, Beagles was honorably discharged in January 1919 and returned to his farm. While many cities and towns, including Columbia, South Carolina, hosted parades welcoming back their soldiers, black veterans did not typically get a hero’s welcome.
“Especially in the South as they were discharged and went back to their homes, they encountered a lot of conflict with various people,” Myers said. Some fell victim to whites who objected to seeing black men in U.S. military uniforms. In 1920, the NAACP noted that nine African American retired soldiers had been lynched in 1919.
However, the mistreatment of African American soldiers during World War I was not a story Gen. Beagle heard from his great-grandfather. Instead, he spoke of hard work, courage, strength and integrity — values that his great-grandson says are woven into his family’s history.
“I remember flexing for Great-Grandpa,” Beagle said with a smile on his face. “He was just a great person, down to earth, hard working.” You could tell that by his hands, Beagle said.
Beagle said his great-grandfather and others contributed significantly to this country, without knowing what their contributions would mean to the future of the military — now a place where people of different races work side by side with the same mission, to protect their nation.
If given one more day with his great-grandfather, Beagle said he would show him today’s diverse soldiers in formation during a graduation ceremony.
“I would turn to him and say hey, was it worth it,” Beagle said. “And I’m pretty sure I’d get a big smile back and he’d say it was absolutely worth it.”