ATF investigating HIghlander fire, similarities with house of worship fires

Published: Mar. 29, 2019 at 6:42 AM EDT
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An investigation continues into the cause of a fire that destroyed decades of archives at the Highlander Center, a social justice complex located in New Market where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. trained.

The March 29 fire destroyed one of 10 buildings located on the center's 200-acre rural property. When fire crews arrived, the building was already engulfed in flames.

The Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm agency is investigating the fire. ATF special agent Michael P. Knight said the ATF's United States Bomb Data Center is looking into details with the fire scene to determine similarities with previous fire incidents at houses of worship.

Tennessee congressman Steve Cohen asked Attorney General William Barr to investigate the fire.

“As you know, the Highlander Education and Research Center is world renowned for its social justice work as well as its historic role in the Civil Rights Movement. Highlander played host to civil rights leaders like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose assassination in Memphis occurred 51 years ago today," Cohen wrote. “I urge you to investigate this incident for violations of federal law as well as significantly increase the department’s efforts to combat the recent rise in hate crimes and white nationalism across the country.”

On April 2, the center shared a press release on Facebook which said a symbol connected to the white power movement was spray painted on the parking lot outside the building that burned.

"The safety of our people is and has always been our first concern. The investigation is nowhere near over," they said in the release. "We are continuing to survive and monitor the process that takes more time in a rural geography with limited public resources. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office will continue their investigation. The Tennessee Bomb and Arson people will continue to do theirs. We are not confused about how rarely people are ever charged with arson; however, we are surviving and monitoring these investigations."

Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Coffey said on Monday that investigators will remain on site at the Highlander Education and Research Center for two or three more days.

"This isn't the first attack right if this was in fact that what it is," Co-Executive Director Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson said. "In a series over 87 years where people have tried to stop us from doing this work, and what we've found is that work has continued."

The center has trained labor organizers and civil rights leaders including King and Rosa Parks since 1932. Founded as the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, it moved to New Market in 1972.

"Rosa Parks not only trained here but served on our board of directors for years," Henderson said. "Martin Luther King was here, so many amazing folks that people think of that were bastions of the labor movement, of the civil rights movement."

"You can set a building on fire, but you can't stop a movement with fire," Henderson said.

Coffey declined to say whether arson is suspected, but the sheriff's office did announce that state officials were investigating the incident.

It’s time for our people to hear more from us. What we know: As most of you know, a devastating fire burned down our...

Posted by Highlander Center on Tuesday, April 2, 2019