Fires are a staple of television news — and church fires are a symbol of outright hatred and violence. Put them together, and you have a compelling combination that draws attention from around the globe.
The ATF and FBI have arrested three college students — charged with the intentional torching of nine churches in central and west Alabama. The first five happened in rural Bibb County. The other four were scattered in other counties a few days later, in an attempt to throw a wrench in the investigative track.
In one sense, these communities can start putting these events behind them. Knowing that it was dumb college kids and not race-or-religion-based hate is a slight comfort. Unfortunately, past history tells us that public perception on the national scale will not catch up to the facts. If asked, most people outside of the state will tell you that the last round of hyped church burnings (mid ’90s) were a racial plot, when in fact most were set by members. A year from now, others will insist the Bibb County church fires were set by the Klan. (A funny thought, considering that all five of the Bibb churches were white congregations.)
The state of Alabama has a long way to go in changing perceptions, and its people are at the mercy and whim of those who are content to carry the stereotypes. Those minds won’t be changed until they are ready.
While the state’s image is the indirect “loser” in this affair, the PR staff at Birmingham-Southern College is working to avoid direct fallout. Two of the three arrested are BSC students — and that is not exactly the top-of-mind impression you want to leave. Already, the school is fielding questions about the investigation, part of which occurred on campus:
â€œI can confirm the FBI was on our campus last evening conducting an investigation,â€ school spokeswoman Linda Hallmark said today. â€œAt this time, we know nothing more than that. Weâ€™re waiting on information and instruction from the FBI.â€
UPDATE: Birmingham-Southern is going out of its way to come out of this in as positive a position as possible:
At a press conference this afternoon, Birmingham-Southern President David Pollick pledged to â€œaid in the rebuilding of these lost churches through our resources and our labors.â€
Pollick said it was too early to determine whether the aid would be in the form of money or labor. â€œWeâ€™re hoping to find the best way to help.â€
The embers of perception burn long after the fires of hate go cold.