On Thursday, April 11, one week after the nation and many countries around the world commemorated the life, service and deeds of slain Civil Rights stalwart Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, with memorial services, special citations and even conferences to continue the dialogue on Civil unrest, and the rise in racism and hate groups over the past several years, Holden Matthews took advantage of the opportunity to set three historic Black Churches on fire in Opelousas, Louisiana.
Matthews, age 21 is the son of a sheriff’s deputy, according to Sheriff Bobby Guidroz. He is not from Mexico, or the Middle east. He did not steal-away and enter this country under unknown circumstances. He was born here.
The sheriff affirmed the local investigation and filmed footage lead to the youth’s arrest not the earlier media reports that Matthews’ father turned him in.
“As we all know by now, Holden’s father is an employee of mine, a fine man,” Guidroz said, adding, “He (Matthews’s senior) was in terrible shape.”
The churches set ablaze included St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre burned on March 26, followed by Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2 and two days later, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in the same town.
The fires are believed to have been intentionally set, a local elected official said last week.
Officials are also investigating a fourth, smaller fire on March 31 at the predominantly white Vivian United Pentecostal Church in Caddo Parish, more than 200 miles north of St. Landry. The blaze was intentionally set, but Edwards said they did not believe that fire was connected to the ones Matthews is suspected of setting.
The FBI and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are assisting in the investigations.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has labeled the fires “domestic terrorism,” adding the “spike in church burnings in Southern states is a reflection of the emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country.”
Church burnings were an unfortunate and common occurrence in the Jim Crow era. And fires at black churches — especially those in the South — immediately bring to mind such racist attacks.
One in particular involved three Civil Rights workers Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, who were in Mississippi to investigate and shield light on churches being burned. On June 21, 1964 in Neshoba County, their bodies were discovered in shallow graves.
NAACP President and CEO Derrick noted, “For decades, African-American churches have served as the epicenter of survival and a symbol of hope for many in the African-American community. As a consequence, these houses of faith have historically been the targets of violence.”
Shortly after the mass murder of nine people at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, several churches were set a ablaze, authorities have not ruled out this being a hate crime.
According to the latest data from the National Fire Protection Association, fires within religious and funeral properties have been on the decline for decades. However, between 2007 and 2011 16% of fires were believed to have been set intentionally.
The election of one Donald J. Trump has led to an increase in racial hate groups and such acts across the country. Trump described torch carrying, Neo-Nazi’s and members of the Alt-Right both hate groups molded in similar vein of the KKK as “good people?” A perception questioned by many, but no doubt a feather in the cap of those groups.
At Informant Press time, Matthews is facing three counts of simple arson on a religious building. Each charge carries a maximum of 15 years, plenty time for the young man to think and ponder the damage he did.
D.L. White is a contributor at Arizona Informant based in Phoenix.