Forgotten Fires takes an in-depth look at church burnings perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1990s with an eye on the historical context that preceded them.
When the center of the community is a church, a fire can destroy almost everything; everything but the spirit of the people who built it. In one small, poor Southern town, hatred stalked the vulnerable, but victims and perpetrators had more in common than either could imagine. Forgotten Fires investigates the burning of two black churches near Manning, South Carolina, by a young convert to the Ku Klux Klan. Frank 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 the church windows. One of the young white men listening outside, a friend and neighbor of Macedonia parishioners, helped burn the church. On June 20th and 21st, 1995, 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 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. Woven into the compelling contemporary drama of Forgotten Fires is the historic backdrop from which it sprang. The struggle for racial tolerance has a unique history in Clarendon County, for it was here that the stage was set for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education lawsuit in 1954, when a young pastor named J.A. Delaine started a petition movement to get a school bus for black children. The poor petitioners of Clarendon, whose dignity is evident in their interviews, were true heroes of the South, risking jobs, homes and security to sign the petition. For his efforts, DeLaine's house and church were burned. DeLaine's son declares, "I think they understand hate. I don't think they understand why they hate." 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 Haley family and Tim Welch arouse pity, compassion, and also fear in viewers who grasp how easy it is for people made vulnerable by poverty to choose violence. Forgotten Fires has an element of tragedy, because it reveals how hate crimes damage the perpetrators as well as their victims. UPDATE On July 24, 1998, in the largest judgment ever awarded against a hate group, a jury ordered the Christian Knights of the Ku 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 one million dollars," he said. "The jury's decision was a day of reckoning for the Klan," said Morris Dees, the Southern Poverty Law Center's chief trial counsel and lead attorney for Macedonia Baptist. "The Christian Knights and [Horace] King don't have millions of dollars. But the verdict will likely put the Klan out of business or severely diminish its influence and deter others from hate-inspired actions." "The lawsuit was more symbolic than anything else," commented Macedonia Baptist Minister Jonathan Mouzon. " As far as actually collecting, there's little chance that we will, but we stood for our rights. Maybe mere accountability will make others think twice before joining hate groups."