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Arrest in Mississippi Church Fire Sparks Debate

  • Associated Press

FILE - Area residents and church members look on as authorities investigate a fire at Hopewell Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, Nov. 2, 2016. "Vote Trump" was spray-painted on an outside wall of the African American church.

The arrest of a black man on a charge of burning a black Mississippi church that was spray-painted with the words “Vote Trump” has sparked bickering online and consternation in the community surrounding the church.

Andrew McClinton, 45, made an initial court appearance Thursday in Greenville, a day after he was arrested and charged with a felony: first-degree arson of a place of worship. He requested a public defender and remained in jail with bond set at $250,000.

McClinton, who lives in the Greenville suburb of Leland, spent several years in prison in Mississippi on convictions of armed robbery and other crimes. He is a member of Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church of Greenville, which burned November 1, a week before the presidential election.

Mayor's words, frustration

In the days after the church fire, Greenville Mayor Errick D. Simmons, an African-American who took office several months ago on a pledge of racial unity, urged officials to investigate it as a possible hate crime. The FBI said it would do so, but no hate crimes charges have been filed.

Chris Orr, a Greenville resident and former police officer for the city, expressed frustration over the mayor’s early words about the fire.

“I have a lot of respect for the mayor,” Orr, who is white, said Thursday. “But, classifying this as a hate crime of a ‘historically black church in a black community’ before the investigation even got going good was basically profiling the suspect as a white person, whether he directly said it or not.”

Simmons did not return a call to The Associated Press on Thursday, but his twin brother, Democratic state Sen. Derrick Simmons of Greenville, said the mayor had the right approach.

“There is a dark past in America and in the Deep South regarding the burning of African-American churches,” Derrick Simmons said. “The way law enforcement authorities initially investigated this matter as a hate crime I believe was warranted, considering the past and the history.”

Doubts about suspect

Many people on social media sites have voiced opinions similar to Orr’s, while some African-Americans expressed skepticism about a black man being charged. Derrick Simmons said he has spoken to Greenville residents who were surprised an African-American is accused in the church burning.

“I think people across racial lines just generally do not expect the person charged with such an act to have the racial makeup of Mr. McClinton,” Derrick Simmons said.

Bishop Clarence Green of Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church (left) and Pastor James Nichols of the First Baptist Church of Greenville laugh together inside the chapel that First Baptist offered as a temporary home for the members of Hopewell, Nov. 22, 2016.
Bishop Clarence Green of Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church (left) and Pastor James Nichols of the First Baptist Church of Greenville laugh together inside the chapel that First Baptist offered as a temporary home for the members of Hopewell, Nov. 22, 2016.

Officials haven’t revealed what led to McClinton’s arrest. Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, who is also the state fire marshal, said investigators don’t believe the fire and vandalism were politically motivated, despite happening a week before the contentious presidential election.

Since the fire, Hopewell members have been worshipping in the chapel at First Baptist Church of Greenville, a predominantly white congregation that says Hopewell can stay as long as it needs a home.

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