GREENVILLE — Hate crimes don’t happen in this town, at least not according to many of the people who live here.
But on Tuesday night, someone set fire to the historically black Hopewell Baptist Church and spray-painted the words “Vote Trump” along its side. By morning, the FBI had opened a civil-rights investigation into whether the apparent arson was fueled by racism.
So as the air around the church hung thick with soot and a police officer marked off the scene with yellow crime tape, many community members reacted with disbelief and searched beyond the rumors spreading through social media for a more palatable explanation of what happened here.
“We don’t have a race problem here in the city of Greenville. Maybe we’re being infiltrated with crime from somewhere else. I wouldn’t think we’d have people here, black or white, who’d engage with this,” said the Rev. Theautry Winters. “We have good people in Greenville.”
A church neighbor reported the fire shortly after 9 p.m. Tuesday night. Firefighters arrived minutes later to find the church already engulfed in flames, according to fire-department Chief Ruben Brown. Brown said investigators worked through the night to gather evidence.
By the next afternoon, they had officially determined the blaze was the result of arson and pinpointed the origin at the back door of the church, near a set of windows. Samples from the scene have been submitted to the state crime lab with results expected in two to five days. The police have no suspects but they have spoken to a person of interest, whose name has not been released, according to Greenville police Chief Delando Wilson.
The news sparked reaction from national media outlets and many state leaders. Gov. Phil Bryant condemned the crime, saying “anyone who burns a place of worship will answer to almighty God for this crime against people of faith.”
Meanwhile, the identity and motives of the culprit is hotly debated in Greenville.
“We’ve got a lot of gang activity. I’m inclined to think it’s that rather than a hate crime,” said the Rev. Amos Gilmore, a Greenville resident and pastor of Metcalfe’s Christian Life Church. “I’d rather think that.”
Polly Powell lives next door to the church and called the fire department when she and her husband heard the alarm, which they ignored for several minutes because they mistook it for the burglar alarm.
“I said, ‘Oh, I guess someone’s messing with the church again,'” Powell said. “… I think [Vote Trump] was put there to throw the scent off the real trail. I just don’t think it has nothing to do with Trump.”
The Rev. Brandt Dick, a minister at the predominantly white St. James Episcopal Church, said he’d heard the theory that the “Vote Trump” spray paint is a false flag and hopes it’s true.
“I really want it to be something like that,” Dick said. “Because I don’t want to think there are people here who would do something like that.”
In many ways, Greenville deserves its reputation as a relatively tolerant oasis in an often racially tumultuous state.
If the Ku Klux Klan comes up in conversation, many residents will jump at the chance to tell the story of the town uniting in the 1920s to drive out the group; the Klan never returned. In the 1960s, Greenville’s school board was the first in Mississippi to voluntarily desegregate their schools.
Rodney McNeal, who was baptized at Hopewell as a baby, said that as a black man, he has white friends and he feels comfortable when he’s in white neighborhoods.
“You know everyone here. You can go anywhere, you can shop anywhere,” he said.
But there are still white neighborhoods.
And while most residents who spoke with Mississippi Today said they were shocked by the Hopewell fire, many admitted signs of racial discord had emerged in recent months as the the national political climate has heated up.
On Sept. 11, Mayor Errick Simmons said he received a phone call that someone had spray painted the N-word in two-foot-tall letters on the boat loading dock at the Greenville levee.
Amos Gilmore, the pastor, and fellow Greenville resident Willie Hass said that this summer, for the first time in decades, they had started feeling less comfortable in some local white-owned businesses.
“It’s the attitudes of people in public places; nobody’s in a hurry to wait on you,” Gilmore said, referring to black customers at white-run stores. “It feels like stepping back in time. It’s not as bad as it was in the late 60s and 70s, but it’s noticeable.”
Gilmore and his wife, the Rev. Lillie Gilmore, a life-long Greenville resident, blame the rise in tension to the political rhetoric of Republican nominee Donald Trump.
“Think about it, all the folks he puts down,” Lillie Gilmore said.
“He puts down Hispanics, then he puts down women… And you’re always going to have those groups willing to follow him. He’s inciting them,” Amos Gilmore said.
This is why, although spray painting a candidate’s name is rarely considered hate speech, “Vote Trump” is different, according to Mayor Errick Simmons.
“It has that connotation,” Simmons said. “Yes, the atmosphere around the country has enabled folks to come out of their closets, you could say, and do these cowardly acts.”
Many residents say they can’t recall a more vicious presidential election. And some suggested that if the arsonists directed hate at anyone, it could be Democrats as much as African Americans.
Of course in Greenville, like many towns in the Delta, they’re often one in the same. In Greenville, 78 percent of residents are African American, according to U.S. Census Data. Currently Hillary Clinton has a significant edge over Donald Trump among African Americans, at 89 percent support over his seven percent.
Rev. Dick agreed, saying “everything this year boils down to politics.”
For the bishop of Hopewell Baptist, Clarence Green, the motivation behind the fire is likely more complex than the picture of racism painted by the media.
“Everyone is asking if it was a hate crime. No, I don’t think it’s a hate crime,” Green said. “…But I often encourage everyone in our congregation to go out and vote. And I’m a Democrat. We’ll leave it at that.”
But Chief Wilson hesitates to draw a line between political and racial motivations.
“To me it’s about trying to suppress someone’s civil liberties – the way they’d like to vote. That’s as much a hate crime to me as anything,” Wilson said. “I certainly think that plays a big part in the history of what’s gone on with (burning) African American churches, that and the significance of the black church in the community.”
But if the community is bewildered by the question of who set the fire, many admit being more confused about why anyone would single out Hopewell as a target. Small and rectangular with yellow brick, it sits at a bend in the road, right next to the rail road tracks. Powell’s house is the only building with a direct line of sight to it. And unlike most churches burned during the Civil Rights era, Green said his church is ardently apolitical.
“This is a church that’s isolated, it’s quiet,” Lillie Gilmore said. “I do know this, if it is a hate crime, they picked the wrong place.”
On Tuesday night, a multi-racial crowd gathered at Schelben Park by the Levee in Greenville. People held hands. They prayed. They sang “This Little Light of Mine.” Afterwards, Rev. Justin White, a minister at the predominately white First Methodist Church and one of the event’s organizers, said he had wanted a positive event to remind people that Greenville is a united town.
“The reality is an historically black church was burned down in Mississippi. Whatever the motivation, that is evil,” White said.