President Clinton on Wednesday toured the ruins of one of 33 black churches burned in an arson fire in the past 18 months and said a new sanctuary nearby proved "the false idols of hatred and division did not win."
Visiting this tiny rural community, Clinton called for racial reconciliation across America. He said the church fires proved that while much progress has been made in building a bridge between black and white America "our job is not done.""Show the forces of hatred they cannot win," Clinton said, urging Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to speak out against racism and report anything they know about the unsolved church fires. "This is wrong."
For his part, Clinton promised additional federal law enforcement tools to investigate the unsolved fires and to prevent additional ones. Clinton spoke outside the new Mt. Zion AME Church, which will be dedicated officially Saturday. The old church burned nearly a year ago.
"I'm encouraged by the rebuilding they're doing," Clinton said en route to South Carolina Tuesday night. "And I want to reaffirm to everybody in this country that we're going to keep working until we get to the bottom of all these cases."
Clinton's Republican critics say the president is indulging in election-year posturing. "Clinton does not see a tragedy, he sees a photo-op," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
"That's just the latest in a string of unfortunate comments by Dick Armey," responded White House spokesman Mike McCurry.
South Carolina's Republican governor, David Beasley, said Tuesday that Clinton's visit appeared to be a political event.
"I only hope that the president is sincere and look forward to hearing of his plans to help us in our battle to stop the fires," said Beasley, who did not join Clinton.
Before speaking at the new church, Clinton stood on the plot of land where Mt. Zion AME Church once stood. All that remains is a sandy patch in a clearing of pines dotted with weeds and scattered chunks of cement.
Clinton then traveled one mile up the road to Mt. Zion's new home, a medium-size brick church with a white steeple. Clinton and church officials stood in the church sanctuary and then knelt for a moment of prayer at the communion rail.