DURHAM, N.C. -- Three large crosses were burned in separate spots around the city during a span of just over an hour, and yellow fliers with Ku Klux Klan sayings were found at one location, police said.
The cross burnings Wednesday night marked the first time in recent memory that one of the South's most notorious symbols of racial hatred has been seen in the city.
''At this day and time, I thought we'd be beyond that," said Mayor Bill Bell. ''People do things for different reasons, and I don't have the slightest idea why anyone would do this."
The first burning was reported at 9:19 p.m. outside St. Luke's Episcopal Church. The next came at 9:54 p.m. atop a pile of dirt near an apartment complex construction site; the third was at 10:28 p.m. at a downtown intersection.
Police said each cross was about 7 feet tall and 4 feet wide and made of four 2-by-4s. They were wrapped in burlap and doused in a liquid that smelled like kerosene.
''I cannot think of any reason that any insider or anyone outside would be angry with us," said Bill Gutknecht, senior warden at St. Luke's.
''I don't know what kind of point they're trying to make . . . I certainly hope and pray it had nothing to do directly with our church."
Burning a cross without the permission of the property owner is a misdemeanor in North Carolina. However, the US Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that, under the First Amendment, cross burning could be barred only when done with the intent to intimidate.
Cross burnings have been associated with the Ku Klux Klan since the early 20th century. The first known cross burning occurred when a Georgia mob celebrated a lynching, according to the high court decision.
Bell said he couldn't recall a cross burning in Durham since he moved there in 1968.
He said his office had not received any correspondence suggesting someone might target the city with cross burnings.
St. Luke's was one of several churches picketed earlier this month by members of Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., as part of a protest against the performance of ''The Laramie Project" at Durham School of the Arts.
The group was upset with churches and others for not taking a stand against the play, which is about Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was beaten to death in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998.