March on Religious Freedom (1993)
aka: March on Fort God
In summer 1993 in northeastern Arkansas, three teenagers, later known as the West Memphis Three, were arrested for the murders of three children in West Memphis (Crittenden County). After a long history of anti-occult prejudice and paranoia, the “satanic panic” of the 1980s caused the community to be wary of those who associated themselves with occult behavior. On the heels of the media spectacle surrounding the murders and the arrests of the teenagers, a thirty-eight-year-old Jonesboro (Craighead County) native became the target of religious discrimination and later led a march through the city that was known widely as the March on Religious Freedom, though some locals called it the “March on Fort God.”
A practicing Wiccan since June 1991, Terry Riley was elevated to Right Reverend by the Aquarian Tabernacle Church of Index, Washington, on September 1, 1993, and he became a licensed and ordained minister in Arkansas on September 10, 1993, in Jonesboro. Due to the limitation of available worship supplies—the books, ritual tools, herbs, and gemstones/crystals that are primarily utilized in Wiccan/Pagan practices—in northeastern Arkansas, Riley opened an occult shop, the Magic Moon, at 4914A East Nettleton Avenue in Jonesboro on June 21, 1993. Two days later, Riley was approached at his place of business by landlord Steve Griffin, who was accompanied by two members of the local Church of the Nazarene. According to Riley, the Christian ministers pressured his landlord to evict him and then appeared on television urging business owners not to rent store space to Terry and his wife Amanda Riley, cutting off their efforts to supply occult products to the Pagan community. After telling his story to the local newspaper, Riley attracted media attention from across the state and nation, including appearing on Inside Edition.
On August 1, 1993, Riley led a march for religious freedom through the streets of Jonesboro. Pagans united from across the nation to march in protest of religious discrimination, while those who were unable to attend sent donations and letters of support, including Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary in Moheb, Wisconsin; arch priest Pete “Pathfinder” Davis of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church in Index, Washington; Oberon Zell of the Church of All Worlds in Cotati, California; and several local covens in the tristate area of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri. Gathering on Highland Drive in front of the local Wal-Mart, they made their way to the Craighead County Courthouse in the downtown area (which also later served as the setting for the West Memphis Three trial), only to be met by counter-protesters with a large wooden cross.
The counter protest was organized by Steve Branch, whose son was one of the three boys brutally murdered in West Memphis earlier that year. Riley stated in an interview that while he could not imagine the pain that Branch was going through, what happened to his son was not related to the practice of the Wiccan religion.
The march began at 9:00 a.m. with between seventy to a hundred marchers, many wearing t-shirts that read, “Salem Revisited! The Great Jonesboro Witch Hunt!” Along the way, the group was joined by many others expressing their right to protest. Around 3,000 spectators showed up to witness the event. Close to 100 police officers from across the state gathered to protect those marching, some riding four to a squad car, surrounding the formation as they walked through the city. Having to make frequent stops for safety concerns, the police eventually exited the vehicles only to lock arms to keep the counter protesters from attacking Riley and the people who marched alongside him as they pushed through the hostile crowd. In front of the courthouse, Riley spoke through a bullhorn calling for religious freedom and tolerance across the United States. After the march had concluded, Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary (who later helped to establish Wicca as a recognized religion to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) stated to Riley over the phone, “Terry, what you have done today with this march has poked a small pinhole in Christendom in the bible belt, and it will only grow bigger and stronger after today.”
At this time in Arkansas history, no one who practiced Wicca and Witchcraft had spoken publicly to the media in protest of the systemic prejudice they faced in the Bible Belt, and many felt pressured to practice their faith in secret to avoid persecution and bigotry. Sacraments were often carried out in the privacy of the home with like-minded individuals to avoid public hostility. Covens (small groups of people organized to practice and celebrate the tenets of the Wiccan religion) were formed in secret, as there were few places around the nation that practitioners could openly congregate without facing scrutiny. Terry and Amanda Riley appeared on the Jane Whitney Show later that year, and the news of what happened spread across the world.
In 1994, a year after the march, Riley founded the Southern Delta Church of Wicca, carrying over traditions from the Motani Coven. In 1997, the church moved from Jonesboro to Brookland (Craighead County), where Riley opened a new shop, Dagda’s Cauldron, at 101 W Hinkley St. on April 27, 1999. The landlord, Kirby Smith, came under pressure to evict Riley. Threats were made against his family by the local community, who called for the resignation of Mayor Joe McKeel for not blockading the occult shop. The Southern Delta Church of Wicca finally settled at 104 Main St. in Lake City (Craighead County), providing open sacraments to the public as well as community outreach programs, and became an affiliate of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church.
Since the march in 1993, Paganism has been on the rise in the United States, increasing the need for places of worship. As a sign of Paganism’s increasing prominence, in 2007, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officially recognized the Pentacle as a religious symbol, allowing it to be placed on headstones for fallen service members and veterans.
For additional information:
Huston, Jerry, and Kenneth Heard. “Petitions Try to Expel Shop Owner, Mayor over Occult Store.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 11, 1999, pp. 1B. 5B.
March on Fort God: Paganism Emerges in “the Bible Belt.” Whitlock Independent Cinemagraphic Coverage of America, Children of the Circle. Online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tW2bdQpzW-Y (accessed June 22, 2021).
Mitchell, S. “New Occult Shop Disturbs Citizens.” Jonesboro Sun, May 2, 1999, 1A, 16A.
“Pagans, Foes Awaken Streets of Jonesboro.” Commercial Appeal, August 2, 1993, p. 1A, 10A.
“Self-Proclaimed Witches Hold March in Arkansas.” Orlando Sentinel, August 2, 1993.
Shapiro, L., and D. Glick. “Do You Believe in Magick?” Newsweek, August 23, 1993, p. 32.
Southern Delta Church of Wicca—ATC
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