GREELEYVILLE, S.C. (AP) — A fire that destroyed a black church that 20 years ago was a target of the Ku Klux Klan was not the work of an arsonist, a federal law enforcement source said Wednesday.
Preliminary indications are that the fire at the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville was not intentionally set and was not arson, the source said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly. The fire is still under investigation, the official said.
Greeleyville is a town of about 400 people around 50 miles north of Charleston, where a pastor and eight members of a historic black church were fatally shot June 17 in what authorities are investigating as a hate crime.
The fire occurred as federal authorities also investigate a series of fires at black churches in several Southern states. So far, there is no indication the fires are related.
On Wednesday morning, only the brick walls of the Greeleyville church remained. The roof had collapsed, and the long slender windows no longer had glass in them.
The side of the church facing the rural highway had a white cross that appeared charred.
Investigators were walking through the debris, taking pictures and examining the remains of the building.
Yellow crime scene tape kept reporters and nearby residents away from the building.
The image of orange flames coming from the same church the KKK burned down in June 1995 brought up painful memories, said Williamsburg County Councilman Eddie Woods Jr., who got out of bed to drive to the church after hearing about the fire.
“That was a tough thing to see,” Woods said. “It is hurting those people again. But we’re going to rebuild. If this was someone, they need to know that hate won’t stop us again.”
Two members of the Ku Klux Klan pleaded guilty to starting that fire and a second blaze at another predominantly black church.
Speaking at the church in 1996, President Bill Clinton implored people not to respond to what was a string of nearly three dozen church fires — many of them racially motivated — with the same hatred that drove the people who started the blazes. He gave the church a plaque to commemorate his visit, and noticed membership had grown four times over since the fire.
“The American people are the most religious, church-going people of any great democracy,” Clinton said. “We cannot let someone come into our democratic home, the home of our faith, and start torching our houses of worship.”
Kinnard reported from Columbia, South Carolina. Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins also contributed.
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