Charlottesville’s Struggle to Right the Wrongs of its Past

This blog was co-authored by Ashleigh Crocker and Jennifer Lawhorne

On Saturday night, my husband and I were walking around the downtown mall in Charlottesville. I noticed a lot of people walking around carrying tiki torches, laughing and chatting with their friends like everyone else. I asked my husband what they could possibly be for, and I almost asked one of them, assuming it was some silly UVA party to celebrate the end of school.

When I woke up Sunday morning and scrolled through the news as I always do,  I was completely horrified when I saw what those tiki torches had actually been for. Those people, who looked so normal, like everyone else on the mall having fun on Saturday night, used those tiki torches as a symbol of hatred to instill fear in the members of our community who don’t look like them.

Looking at the photos of their “rally,” you could draw no other conclusion than to assume the mob purposely and explicitly used the symbolism of the KKK to frighten and intimidate people. A photo posted by Richard Spencer, a UVA graduate credited with coining the term “alt-right” and an organizer of the event, shows him standing smugly with a torch ready to do what he does best–use his privilege to intimidate people. It was not ignorance, as some have suggested. This was done purposefully and intentionally to remind people of where we used to be and bring back that same level of terror.

Monuments of Hate

Although white supremacists of Spencer’s ilk have rebranded themselves as “Identity Europa” and the “Traditionalist Workers Party,” their gathering on Saturday night was nothing short of a KKK rally. Spencer & Co. met at Charlottesville’s Lee Park to protest the removal of a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee erected in 1924. Saturday’s mob rally was preceded by a “white bloc” march earlier in the day, where a large group of men and women dressed in white, holding Confederate flags aloft and chanting “white lives matter,” paraded in military formation to Lee Park. An article about Saturday for an alt-right blog hailed the rally as “massive,” saying it was held to “protect white identity and defend white civil rights.”

The day’s events were organized by locally recognized white supremacist Jason Kessler, who was arrested Sunday night for disorderly conduct when he showed up at a candlelight vigil protesting the Saturday rallies. Kessler is also known for creating a smear campaign against Charlottesville’s Vice-Mayor, Wes Bellamy, an African-American who has led the movement to remove the Lee statue.  

In early February, Charlottesville’s city council voted to relocate the Lee statue from downtown to another park farther away from downtown. The 3-2 vote provoked an outcry from people who wanted to keep the statue in Lee Park, calling the removal an “attack on Virginia’s heritage.” The city’s decision prompted Corey Stewart, a Republican gubernatorial hopeful, to mobilize to “defend” the statue. Subsequently, Stewart made the preservation of Confederate history central to his campaign that also demonizes immigrants. He’s made frequent stops in Charlottesville to protest the Lee statue’s removal and has also appeared in Richmond at the city’s own Lee monument. Another Charlottesville politician who has publicly supported Kessler and his tribe is Rep. Tom Garrett, who has posed with Kessler in pictures posted on Twitter.

Unapologetic Racism

People emboldened by President Trump’s racist rhetoric, people like Kessler and Stewart, are finding more opportunities to spout their nasty vitriol. It is no coincidence that since Trump’s election, America has seen a surge in hate crimes. When white supremacist Dylan Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 and murdered nine African American church members, he was hoping to spark a race war. His actions gave pause to the country and created discussion on what to do with the racist symbols like the Confederate flag that he cloaked himself in. South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its state capitol grounds soon after the mass murder. Alabama moved in similar fashion. It seemed like the country was moving in a positive direction to address the wrongs of its past.  

According to a recent report published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there have been more than 100 attempts at the state and local levels to remove Confederate memorials or add features to provide historical context to Confederate memorials following the Charleston massacre. The same report also says that 1,503 Confederate symbols exist in public spaces throughout the nation. Virginia has more Confederate memorials than any other state- 223 to be exact. So, think about that. There are 223 public spaces in the state that serve as constant reminders to African-Americans that their rights and equality are not valued, their history is ignored and their pain is dismissed. Those monuments say that Confederate heritage matters more than African-American heritage.

The Ghosts of Jim Crow

The same SPLC study also found that there were two periods when the construction of Confederate monuments took place: the first two decades of the 20th century and during the Civil Rights movement. The building of these monuments was an effort to whitewash history in response to the progress the country was making at the time with racial justice. The construction of Confederate monuments in the beginning of the 20th century came when the South enacted Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise African Americans after Reconstruction. White supremacy also reestablished itself by terrorizing African Americans through lynchings and the KKK. More Confederate monuments were built in the 1950s and 1960s as a backlash to federal efforts to desegregate public schools and ensure voting rights.   

So now, in a reaction similar to that of racist leaders during the 20th century, some white people feel like their identity is under attack and are hell-bent on using old tactics to terrorize their neighbors. In an op-ed published in the Washington Post, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu defended his decision to remove four Confederate statues from the city. “(The Confederate monuments) are an inaccurate recitation of our past, an affront to our present and a poor prescription for our future. The right course, then, is to excise these symbols of injustice,” Landrieu wrote. Racists have public places to gather to espouse their white supremacy and we need to take those spaces away from them.

Charlottesville Responds to Racism

Before the rally this weekend, many in Charlottesville were indifferent to moving the statues. Some thought it was money wasted that could be used elsewhere. Others didn’t seem to realize how hurtful having to see these memorials that glorify racists is to members of our community. But after the hateful mob rally on Saturday night, the Charlottesville community came together for another rally to spread love and show support for African Americans in our community. The vigil was attended by many more people than who attended the original event, and hopefully this is just a first step in Charlottesville’s fight against against this kind of hatred in our community.

But one vigil isn’t enough. We have a lot of work to do to not only get rid of these racist statues, but to address the systemic racism that exists in Charlottesville and in Virginia as a whole. Taking down the statues won’t solve the huge segregation problem Charlottesville has, or fix the poverty that disproportionately affects African-Americans, create more affordable housing for people who need it, or keep people out of jail for having small amounts of marijuana. But taking down the memorials to those who beat, raped, and murdered black people for profit is a good first step.

So let’s stand up to get rid of these statues as soon as possible. And then get to work on the bigger issues that plague our communities.