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Local News in Virginia

Arson Burning of Miss. Church Has Special Meaning Locally

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter
New Journal and Guide

Earlier this month (November 1) the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, was severely damaged by fire and vandalized with “Vote Trump” graffiti spray-painted on the side of the 111-year-old Black church. The incident was reflective of the racial and social tensions spurred by the 2016 presidential election between Trump, and his Democratic rival Hillary R. Clinton.

But to Betty Potts of Norfolk, the burning of the church and its defacement with graffiti struck a different cord with her emotionally and spiritually. Greenville, Mississippi is Potts’ hometown, and she grew up under the roof of Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church. She said her cultural and spiritual foundation was formed within the yellow walls of the church when she was a child and continued as an adult. There, she, her parents, siblings and other relatives were baptized, attended Sunday School, and worshipped on Sunday mornings. Many of the funerals of her family members, including her sister’s, were held there over the years.

Potts has called Norfolk home for over two decades. She left Mississippi at age 18 to attend college in Texas, marry, raise a family, and travel overseas. “I am shocked, but not surprised,” said Potts, who is the former chair of the Norfolk Democratic Party Committee. “And it’s because of the racial tensions from some Trump supporters. This is so close to home with me.”

“At that church I was taught ‘to love thou neighbor as you would yourself’,” said Potts. “This was not just talk, we practiced it. “This makes me angry because I care about my community and the rights of others. We are all the same and God created us all the same.” Greenville Mayor Errick D. Simmons called the attack on the century-old Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church “a heinous, hateful and cowardly act,” which is being investigated as a possible hate crime.

“This act is a direct assault on people’s right to freely worship,” he said. “We will not rest until the culprit is found and fully prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” Whether it be the recent hate crime case of nine African-American worshippers shot to death by Dylan Roof at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina or the burning of Hopewell Church in Greenville, from the days of Reconstruction, Black churches have long been the target of racial angst.

Black churches are not only the spiritual foundation of rural and urban Black communities, but a symbol of African-American social and political empowerment. Greenville is a majority Black community (78 percent) of 33,000 and is 100 miles northwest of Jackson, Miss., the state capital. The city was the site of a number of events in the long fight by African-Americans for civil rights in the state.

Greenville, Mississippi was a target of the effort to register Blacks to vote during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1962, at age 19, working as an apprentice in a trade union, James Earl Chaney became involved in the “Freedom Bus Rides.” He boarded a Trailway’s bus in Tennessee and sat next to a ‘Freedom Rider’ enroute to Greenville. In 1964, Chaney, from Meridian, Mississippi, was one of three American civil rights workers who were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

The Fannie Lou Hamer Foundation is in the city. Hamer, who was based in nearby Rulesville, was instrumental in voter registration efforts in the South and later became the vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The suspected arson is being investigated as a hate crime by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

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“We know what the Black church means to the Black community and the symbolism of the Black church,” Simmons said. “This is the place [where] people freely assembled to pray and strategize on how to get civil liberties and rights that were denied to them.” There is a GoFundMe page raising money to repair the church. GoFundMe told the Huffington Post it is working with the organizer of the page and will only release the funds to the church directly. Over $200,000 has been raised online so far.

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