To someone with only a limited knowledge of American history, the events in Charlottesville and the deep set of cultural associations they unearthed came as an object lesson. I knew Charlottesville as the home of Thomas Jefferson and the site of the great university he founded. I admired its bucolic setting at the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, but did not know of its significance to the Confederacy or its prominence during Virginia’s resistance to desegregation mandated by the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. I did not know that its monuments to the Confederacy, the equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, like most of the over 1,500 monuments and memorials of the Confederacy that dot the nation, were built not when the Civil War ended but during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period marked by the ascendancy of the Ku Klux Klan, thousands of lynchings, and the advent of Jim Crow laws of racial segregation. The “beautiful statues and monuments,” to quote a recent presidential tweet, were intended not as neutral markers of history but as muscular re-assertions of white supremacy.
In a pertinent essay, the great historian James McPherson quotes the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens saying in 1861 that the United States was founded in 1776 on the false idea that all men are created equal. If you permit me to read the brutal language, Stephens said that the Confederacy, by contrast,
...is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
There is a powerful stream that courses through much of post-Columbian American history, connecting racial subjugation and slavery to the war of secession that sought to preserve slavery and to the later reinterpretation of that war through the romantic myth of the “Lost Cause” of Southern independence and to the lynchings and degradations of the late 19th century and to the Jim Crow era and now to the white supremacist movements of our times. This is the force that whips up the racist, nativist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant frenzy of today’s alt-right groups. It has spawned vitriolic hate and murder in our communities; it is what motivated the Charleston church massacre; it is what led to the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. We take this moment to honor her memory not only because she died in tragic circumstances, but also because she chose to stand against that current of hate.
We, also, must never flinch from raising our voices in peaceful opposition to hate. And as Boston and Berkeley have recently demonstrated, we must show up to stand in solidarity with people whose rights and liberties and lives are trampled upon by the forces of hate.