This past weekend, Charlottesville made national news when dozens of people with torches – yes, torches – converged on Lee Park in downtown Cville. They were goaded on by Richard Spencer, a white nationalist. It was an apparent protest against the city’s decision to rename Lee (as in Robert E. Lee) and Jackson (as in Stonewall Jackson) Parks and sell the enormous statues of Lee and Jackson that sit in the parks.
I moved to Charlottesville a few years ago, and never have I lived in a town with such simmering racial tension. Of course, racism is everywhere, but it feels especially poignant and always below the surface here. Maybe it’s the memory that Charlottesville decided to close its schools rather than integrate its students in the 1950s. Maybe it’s the fact that in 1963, even the Unitarians – the liberal Unitarians! – told their pastor that he could not drape the church in black as a sign of grief over the deaths of the four black girls killed in the Birmingham church that was bombed by the KKK.
Or maybe, just maybe, it is because we sit in the long shadow of a plantation on a hill that robbed children and women and men of their freedom and autonomy. We call the owner of that plantation, the enslaver of people, Mr. Jefferson.
Racism is Charlottesville’s past, and it is our present. On Saturday, racism showed up as a torch, a menacing reminder of white hoods and of torches lighting crosses on fire. Every day, the subtler-but-devastating racism of housing discrimination and a disproportionate number of black youths getting caught in the juvenile justice system shows up.
We can make Charlottesville’s future different. White people like me can support people of color who are working for change in Charlottesville, through organizations like our local NAACP, Black Lives Matter, Showing Up for Racial Justice, Legal Aid Justice Center, and the Women’s Initiative – which offers, among other things, support groups and services to women of color – to name a few.
And when they come with their torches, we will lift our candles and speak with a fierce love, as did hundreds of people in Lee Park on Sunday night.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who fought apartheid in his home country of South Africa, wrote this beautiful prayer:
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.
May it be so. May we make it so.
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Further reading from local sources:
The NAACP is scheduled to hold a press conference today, Wednesday, May 17, at 11 am
City Councilors respond to Lee statue protest (Cavalier Daily)
At Lee Park, Perriello says state should end Lee-Jackson holiday (Daily Progress)
Candlelit counter-protest follows ‘alt-right’ torch bearers at Lee Park (Daily Progress)
Torch-wielding protesters gather at Lee Park (Daily Progress)