PBS documentary faces unsettling truths about race relations

“Forgotten Fires,” a PBS special about church burnings in South Carolina, will be broadcast at 10 p.m. on Thursday, April 29, on all SCETV stations.

The program investigates the burning of two black churches near Manning by a young convert to the Ku Klux Klan. Interviews with the victims, the perpetrators, their families, and people who live in the community transform a simple black and white news item into a complex account of racism, poverty, denial, repentance and forgiveness.

Proclaiming that black churches taught their congregations how to manipulate the welfare system and procure government subsidies, the Klan set up shop in 1994 in a field near Macedonia Baptist Church. Its members were forced to listen to the Klan’s message of hate as it blared through church windows. One of the young white men listening outside, a friend and neighbor of Macedonia parishioners, helped burn the church.

On June 20 and 21, 23-year-old Timothy Welch and another young man, Christopher Cox, burned Macedonia Baptist and Mt. Zion AME Church. They, and two older accomplices, Arthur Haley and Hubert Rowell, were found guilty of the church burnings and sentenced to 15 to 21 years in prison (later reduced to 12 years for Cox and Welch for testifying in the civil suit against the Klan.) Both churches have since been rebuilt.

Like some of the older Klan members, Welch boasted black friends and rationalized that he “could make exceptions,” while still adhering to the Klan’s doctrine of racial hatred. On a warm summer night in June 1995, he and fellow Klan recruit and friend Cox beat and stabbed Arthur Milligan, a 50-year-old black man. Less than a week later, egged on by their older but less daring compatriots, they burned the two churches which had been at the center of Clardenon County’s black community for 80 years.

The interviews that comprise “Forgotten Fires” explore the arsonists’ motives, the losses experienced by the church communities, and the impact of the church burnings on local citizens. The program has an element of tragedy, because it reveals how hate crimes damage the perpetrators as well as their victims.

On July 24, 1998, in the largest judgment ever awarded against a hate group, a jury ordered the Christian Knights of the Klu Klux Klan, Grand Dragon Horace King and four other Klansmen to pay $37.8 million for their roles in a conspiracy to burn Macedonia Baptist Church.

The Klan appealed the ruling in September and asked for a new trial. The judge denied the request but reduced the size of the judgment to $21.5 million. King claimed he never had a fair chance in court: “I’m a poor man, I couldn’t pay it if it was only a $1 million dollars,” he said.

“The jury’s decision was a day of reckoning for the Klan,” said Morris Dees, the Souther Poverty Law Center’s chief trial counsel and lead attorney for Macedonia Baptist. “The Christian Knights and King don’t have millions off dollars. But the verdict will likely put the Klan out of business — or severely diminish its influence — and deter others from hate-inspired actions.”

From Jan. 1, 1995 to Sept. 8, 1998, thee were 670 church arsons, bombings or attempted bombings, plus another 420 fires deemed “accidental” or “undetermined.”

In 1996, President Clinton formed the National Church Arson Task Force (NCATF) to identify and prosecute the arsonists, help communities rebuild the burned houses of worship, and offer assistance in preventing more fires.