Letter to the Editor: Reckoning with our past
To the Editor:
Last year, I marched down the streets of Charlottesville, Va., with fellow members of the clergy in opposition to the Unite the Right rally. With my arms linked with Dr. Cornel West on my left and activist/author Lisa Sharon Harper on my right, I was one of several dozen ministers and laypeople who answered the call of the organization Congregate Charlottesville to peacefully express our opposition to the rising tide of resentment and hatred directed at vulnerable groups.
It was August 12, a Saturday. The city workers had blocked off the streets surrounding Emancipation Park, where the centerpiece is a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on his horse. That is where the Unite the Right supporters were gathering. We peaceful counter-protestors stood in a single line on the street, where we knelt and prayed, and rose and sang “This Little Light of Mine.” Between us and the statue was a handful of Unite the Right militia men — not police officers — there to protect themselves and their own, not us counter-protestors.
As wave after wave of new groups arrived heading toward the statue, we saw them waving their shields, flags, and wooden swords. We heard their chants and taunts, including “Blood and Soil!” and “You will not replace us!” By Southern standards, it was a sunny, mild day, and yet I felt suffocated at times by the tension in the air.
How had I come to be in such a life-threatening situation? I work for a denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, that is committed to justice, equity and compassion in human relations. The week before, I was already in Virginia for a leadership development program we sponsored. That made it easy for me to be there as support for our president, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, who came down from Boston, Mass., to be part of the counter-protest, as we carried on the tradition of Dr. King, Gandhi, and so many others who resisted oppression.
Our action, coordinated by organizer/activist Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, was intended to end in an encounter with the police: We would block the procession of the Unite the Right supporters as they approached the park, we would refuse when the police demanded that we move, and the police would arrest us. It was the case, however, that the Charlottesville police were far on the fringes of the rally, and nowhere close where they could prevent a sudden outbreak of violence. To make our point against the rally, we had to place ourselves in the heart of danger, where our very lives could have been lost in the twinkling of an eye.
Our counter-protest escalated when we blocked the steps where the Unite the Right groups were arriving into the park. We agreed to retreat at the point that violence broke out. We locked arms, determined to stay in place and not let the next group pass through, but the line broke. We recommitted and locked arms again, wary of what would happen next. We saw the next wave of Unite the Right supporters approaching us, and we steeled ourselves. Only about 50 yards from us, though, they clashed with the anti-fascist protesters who had been making their presence known all morning as they marched up and down the street. When the fighting broke out, we fled to a coffeeshop a few blocks away as planned.
There we had a moment to catch our breath, rest, and contemplate a return to the park. Rev. Susan and I had preparations to make for a worship service the next morning, so we left. As we were pulling out of the parking lot and onto the street, we saw our colleagues rushing from the coffeeshop back in the direction of the park. Rev. Susan checked her phone and saw a live feed from the scene: That was the moment an angry Unite the Right supporter plowed his car into a group of counter-protestors, injuring many of them and killing 30-year-old Heather Heyer.
Rev. Susan and I concluded the most helpful thing we could do at that point was to keep moving away from the chaos, thereby making room for first responders to arrive and do their work with the wounded.
That day in Charlottesville will be with me all of my life. It reflects what troubles me deeply about our country: That some citizens feel so threatened by changes in the ethnicity of the population that they can’t imagine a peaceful nation where they don’t dominate because they are the majority. We are in the midst of a deep reckoning with our past, one that we’ve avoided for too long. Mississippi has the possibility of leading the way, if we can learn to listen to all voices and keep peace through justice as our ultimate goal.
Carlton E. Smith
(Editor’s Note – Carlton E. Smith is an ordained minister who is part of the staff for the Unitarian Universalist Association. When not traveling for work, he lives in Holly Springs, his hometown.)