Dec 21 (Reuters) - Authorities in Mississippi on Wednesday arrested an African-American man in connection with the fire and vandalism of a historic black church, in a case that was initially investigated as a hate crime.
The Greenville church was painted with the words “Vote Trump” and set ablaze a week before the November U.S. presidential election, leading officials initially to view it as a politically motivated hate crime.
Andrew McClinton, 45, was charged with arson of a place of worship for the fire at the Hopewell Baptist Church, said Warren Strain, a spokesman for the Mississippi Department of Public Safety. He said McClinton was African-American.
The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, which is part of the Public Safety Department, did not say what led them to McClinton or speculate about his motive.
But Mississippi State Fire Marshal Mike Chaney said in an interview he did not think the attack was politically motivated.
“At this point we do not believe it was a politically motivated crime though it appears there were attempts to make it look politically motivated,” Chaney said.
He said McClinton was still being interviewed on Wednesday afternoon, and that details about his motivation would likely emerge soon. Chaney, who also serves as the state’s insurance commissioner, said the arson was not believed to be insurance-related.
Black churches in the U.S. South have long been a base of support for the Democratic Party, so the attack and the language supporting Republican nominee Donald Trump were taken as political statements.
During the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Southern black churches were often targets for arson and bombings by white supremacists.
Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, Calif.; Editing by Matthew Lewis