Investigators are treating the burning and vandalism of a historically Black church in Greenville, Mississippi, on Tuesday as a hate crime.
The phrase “Vote Trump” was scrawled in spray paint on the side of the church.
Greenville Mayor Errick Simmons called the fire and vandalism at Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, which has a congregation of about 200 people, a “hateful and cowardly act” and “an attack on the Black church and the Black community,” during a Wednesday press conference.
Simmons told reporters that local, state, and federal authorities had been contacted and that the incident is being investigated as a hate crime. “It appears to be a race crime,” Simmons said, according to NBC News. “It happened in the ’50s, it happened in the ’60s. It shouldn’t happen in 2016.”
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During the press conference, Greenville Police Chief Delando Wilson reportedly called the vandalism a form of voting intimidation.
“It tries to push your beliefs on someone else, and this is a predominantly black church and no one has a right to try to influence the way someone votes in this election,” Wilson said, according to Reuters.
Simmons, in an interview with the New York Times, said that though the rise of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump had not changed race relations in Greenville, extremists had used his rhetoric “as an excuse to show their true colors.”
The FBI released a statement on the burning, saying that it is “aware of the situation in Greenville, and we are working with our local, state and federal law enforcement partners to determine if any civil rights crimes were committed.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center reported in June 2015 on a string of fires at six predominantly Black churches in southern states.