A century-old historically black church in Greenville, Mississippi was torched on Tuesday night and defaced with graffiti reading “Vote Trump” in what authorities have termed a hate crime.
A 911 call came in reporting the fire at the 111-year-old Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church around 9:15 on Tuesday evening. It took about an hour for firefighters to fully extinguish the flames and the damage from the “heinous, hateful, cowardly act” was extensive, said Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons.
“We consider it a hate crime…because of the political message which we believe was intended to interfere with worship and intimidate voters,” Simmons said, CNN reported. “This act is a direct assault on people’s right to freely worship.”
Indeed, an investigation by the local police and fire department led quickly to the conclusion that the fire had been set intentionally.
“Accidental was ruled out,” said Greenville Fire Chief Ruben Brown. So far, there are no suspects.
The FBI has opened a civil rights investigation into the fire and is now working to determine motive.
Mississippi governor Phil Bryant said in response to the crime, “First, anyone who burns a place of worship will answer to almighty God for this crime against people of faith. But they should also answer to man’s law.”
The church’s 200-member congregation is predominantly African American, in a town which is 78 percent black.
Many said the fire recalled “darker days” in Mississippi a half-century ago, when the battle over civil rights led to violence, arson, riots, and intimidation.
“This same violent action was taken to intimidate and impede African-Americans from voting in the 50’s and 60’s,” reminded the Mississippi NAACP chapter in a statement.
Representative Bennie Thompson said the incident “hearkens back to a much darker day in Mississippi.”
“The political message of the vandalism is obviously an attempt to sway public opinion regarding the upcoming election,” he said in an emailed statement.
He urged voters not to give in. “I encourage all citizens not to be deterred by this cowardly act and exercise your right to vote at the ballot box.”