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By Erik Ortiz
When Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning announced this week the arrest of three historically black churches "suspiciously", he sought to dispel fears: "I will say the threat is gone." .
But for some practitioners and black residents of St. Landry Parish and south-central Louisiana, the fear remains that it may happen again.
And there is a good reason.
The historic racial violence and bloodshed in Opelousas, where two of the churches are located, and the visible Ku Klux Klan activity in the surrounding area, about 20 years ago, remain painful reminders of the Intolerance and fanaticism, some of whose concerns are still marginal.
"We are grateful that law enforcement has worked very quickly," said John Milton, chair of the NAACP section's religious affairs committee in Lafayette, about 20 kilometers from the churches. "But we think it's much deeper than this case.Because of the black church fires in the past, we know that there is a substantial connection between race and this event, and that it is not an isolated incident. "
Federal investigators pointed out at a press conference Thursday that they had not yet determined the reason for the fires or whether the attacks were a hate crime.
Holden Matthews, 21, was charged with three counts of arson for allegedly burning the three parish churches of St. Landry for 10 days from March 26. Officials said that Matthews, a white man and son of a parish sheriff from St. Landry's deputy, appeared to be a fan of black metal, a sub-genre of heavy metal associated with white nationalist ideology and church fires in Norway.
An affidavit was filed in this case, according to which the authorities reportedly linked the fires with the help of surveillance videos, cell tower data and the purchase of a canister. Gasoline and other equipment from a Walmart.
"When people feel threatened, they pick on them and attack first," Milton said.
Census data show that the St. Landry Parish, which is overcrowded with Creole culture and has more than 83,000 inhabitants, is 56% white and 42% black.
Rick A. Swanson, professor and researcher in civil rights at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, said that a series of violence against blacks and black churches in the region have roots that go back to rebuilding after the American Civil War.
More particularly, in 1868, Black families of St. Landry were harassed and murdered by white men who defended themselves, annoyed by the new electoral influence of liberated African Americans.
According to some estimates, the number of people killed would be 200, although this figure was disputed, according to information on what is called the Opelousas massacre, which paved the way for lynchings and other racial conflicts in the state.
"There is a very intense story that can not be ignored," said Swanson.
A cornerstone of southern black communities, churches were threatened, burned and bombed during the civil rights movement.
Louisiana was not immune to the wave of church fires in the 1990s that had led President Bill Clinton to form a task force on church fires national authorities to investigate the causes. Five damaged or destroyed churches were in Louisiana, where David Duke, a prominent white supremacist, had won a House House race a few years earlier.
In the mid-1990s in the Lafayette area, a public cable TV channel allowed a Klan leader to host his own show, "The Klan in Akadiana" – a play on the Acadiana area, celebrated in the heart of Cajun country. .
According to reports in 1996, the program, which attracted "a few thousand cable subscribers," was "an hour of hooded dresses, Confederate flags and burning crosses".
The local NAACP, however, disputed the way the host of the show, an Imperial Witch of the White Kamellia Knights, allowed several guests to wear masks – in violation of a law of 1924 providing for the ban on wearing the mask in public, except for events such as Halloween and Mardi Gras.
After attracting national attention, the show ceased to air the following year.
According to Swanson, there has been no blatant peddling of white supremacist ideology in the region, although hate groups have proliferated at the national level over the past four years.
It is expected that NAACP members and religious leaders from the region will meet on Saturday in Opelousas to talk about restoring their sense of community, Milton said.
On this Palm Sunday marking the beginning of Holy Week, the faithful of the three affected churches – St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, both located in Opelousas – have found other places to celebrate their services.
Celina Richard, who belongs to Greater Union Baptist Church, said she did not necessarily need to know if hatred had motivated anyone to want to target her church. She had been baptized at 16, married at 21 and buried her parents last year.
But the destruction of his church, which has about 100 members, broke his sense of security. The faithful must rebuild the burnt ruins, now considered a crime scene.
"It's a very trying time and at the same time you have mixed feelings," said Richard, a retired teacher. "You're so happy that someone was caught, but they had the audacity to take you something – it's troubling."