Time stood still earlier this month, making it easy to wonder if it was 1967 or 2017. Photographs and video showed white nationalists, the “alt-right,” and Ku Klux Klan members as they reveled in hate at Emancipation Park on the campus of the University of Virginia on August 11 and 12.
America witnessed a modern-day lynch mob in Charlottesville. The nighttime rally held that Friday was an an obvious effort to recreate the fear reminiscent of an era when the KKK rode late into the night, lynching innocent victims.
The hatred was palatable on the faces of rally participants. Their faces were the same as those in every lynch mob photo where murderers posed casually under black feet hanging from a tree. They were the faces of the men who tortured 13-year-old Emmett Till mercilessly and unrecognizably, sparking the modern Civil Rights Movement.
They were the last faces Viola Luizzo saw before being shot for “turning from her own kind” by offering rides to Bloody Sunday marchers in Selma, Alabama. They were the faces of those who killed due to “difference” in recent years, to include color, religion, and sexual orientation, often exonerated for their crimes as if nothing happened. It was the face of the sheriff who once stood over me after I was tackled on hot Georgia concrete for “walking while black” through my new neighborhood.
It was all of that and much more, all in a matter of seconds.
Participants travelled to Emancipation Park, once the namesake of Civil War General Robert E. Lee, to protest the planned removal of the Lee statue. Participants chanted phrases based in fear and hate, to include “Jews will not replace us,” “You will not replace us,” and “White lives matter.”
According to the Anti-Defamation League, “white supremacists are preoccupied with the preservation of the white race and white cultural history, and their fear that whites will become a powerless minority in the face of changing demographics.” The “browning” of America has increased white supremacist concerns, as people continue to love whomever they love. As a result, the U.S. Census Bureau projects there will be no majority race by 2043.
This country and its leadership must take a firm stand against hate. Although the vigil took place in Charlottesville, it could have taken place in any city in America, to include Pensacola. Initially, instead of nationwide outrage, disheartening national debates took place regarding who was “at fault” in Charlottesville, drawn across political lines. However, countless marches have taken place across the country since the senseless violence August 12, to include Pensacola’s “Love is Louder – Stand with Charlottesville Against Hate” rally on August 13.
A few years ago, I saw a demonstration and stopped. It was curious, because the speaker was African-American, but was surrounded by people wearing and carrying Confederate flags. As I walked up, a woman stopped me, noting that it was a private meeting. Soon another participant joined her (I presume as back-up), but he recognized me from another organization and “vouched” that I was a “good person.” It was surreal. I was being endorsed by someone who did not approve of my skin color, but spoke approvingly of my character. The rally was held at Pensacola’s Lee Square, yet another public space named in honor of the Confederate leader.
Before driving past the rally, I never knew what the memorial represented. It was just something I drove past on my way downtown. Before Charlottesville, I wouldn’t have thought anything about the Pensacola monument because there are hundreds of similar ones across the country. Before last weekend, I would have never imagined watching rally participants in Charlottesville march with tiki-torches in white polo tops, khaki pants and red “Make America Great Again” caps. The symbolism of the statue is significant. It is no longer history. It has become a current event.
Charlottesville was the living nightmare of anyone who believes in the tenets of civil rights. After Charlottesville, the hoods are off, allowing America to stare hatred in the face. For those who want to make positive change, consider the following suggestions:
1. Be an ally. Allies address issues on behalf of those who may not have a voice. The majority of the protestors in Charlottesville were white. One, Heather Heyer, age 32, involuntarily gave her life as she stood against hate. Friends remember her as “compassionate” with “a big heart for people.” Her favorite quote was, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Susan Bro, Heyer’s mother, told ABC News after her daughter’s memorial, “I’m honestly a little embarrassed to say that part of the reason Heather got so much attention is because she’s white, and she stood up for black people. Isn’t that a shame? That a white person standing up for a black person caused all this excitement? That should be an everyday thing, that should be the norm.” Bro now plans to “forward Heather’s mission.”
Being an ally does not require one lose their life, it just requires you to raise your voice against injustice.
2. Act. Small actions can make a great difference. There is a current petition on Change.org requesting the removal of Pensacola’s Lee Square Confederate monument. Mayor Ashton Hayward called for the monument’s removal on August 16th, but the city council will make the final decision. The question is worth asking: what exactly are we memorializing? Hitler is not celebrated in Germany, so why would Americans honor the Confederate leaders who tried to overthrow the American government? We cannot pay tribute to vestiges of hatred and oppression while promoting unity and diversity. The two simply do not match.
Another small act could be to contact Charlottesville leaders to demand the known attackers of Deandre Harris, who was viciously assaulted by a group of Charlottesville rally participants, be brought to justice. Reporter Shaun King noted that one of Harris’ attackers — Michael Alex Ramos of Marietta, Ga. — has admitted on tape and in writing to participating in the beating. However, police have not yet made any arrests.
3. Support organizations who do the heavy lifting. There are many organizations that were founded to ensure equality and civil freedoms. Do your due diligence to ensure their current efficacy. Grassroot efforts can also make a difference, such as @YesYoureaRacist, a Twitter page that identified Charlottesville rally participants, preventing the veil of anonymity that allows hate to thrive.
University of Nevada at Reno college student Peter Cvjetanovic was among those “outed” by @YesYoureaRacist. Cvjetanovic was overwhelmed by the response, telling Reno’s Channel 2 News, “I did not expect the photo to be shared as much as it was. I understand the photo has a very negative connotation. But I hope that the people sharing the photo are willing to listen that I’m not an angry racist they see in that photo.” Despite his words, his picture conveys a completely different story.
4. Talk it out. Communication is the key to understanding. Habitat for Humanity will facilitate a “community conversation” on August 25 at the Sanders Beach-Corrine Jones Resource Center called “Community Summit: Building Community Enhancing our Sense of ‘We.'” The goal is to inspire greater unity and compassion in and around Pensacola. The event, held at 1:00 pm, and will feature speakers, panelists, and opportunities to dialogue in a safe forum to “begin the discussion of building community centered on compassion and reconciliation to counter current trends of divisiveness.”
Additionally, the University of West Florida hosts “Race and Reconciliation” sessions monthly that provide presentations on current topics followed by open discussion. The next two meetings are scheduled for August 31 and September 21 from 6:00–8:00 p.m. at the Bowden Building at 120 Church Street. Those interested in breaking down racial walls within our beloved city are encouraged to participate.
5. Research issues for yourself. There is no shortage of information available that addresses the legacy and impact of oppression within our society. The challenge is ensuring that your sources are credible and being open to your findings. My doctoral dissertation addressed unintentional prejudice and racism within the Christian community. Yes, it is possible to consider oneself a Christian and be racist, although the two are contradictory and counterintuitive.
Reverend Billy Graham turned from his segregationist foundations, eventually refusing to accept speaking engagements unless everyone could sit where they wished. Graham noted, “Racism is not only a social problem … because racism is a sin, it is also a moral and spiritual issue. Legal and social efforts that obliterate racism, or at least curb its more onerous effects, have legitimate place. However, only the supernatural love of God can change our hearts in a lasting way and replace hatred and indifference with love and active compassion.”
John L. Dovidio and Samuel L. Gardner coined the term “aversive racism” in 1986 to address the phenomenon of the “racism of the unintended.” They define aversive racism as “a modern form of prejudice that characterizes the racial attitudes of many whites who endorse egalitarian values, who regard themselves as non-prejudiced, but who discriminate in subtle, rationalizable ways.”
The “blame on both sides” argument is a very strong example of an egalitarian mindset at work.
6. Love. Although it can be extremely challenging, we must strive to love. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Jamel Moore stood blindfolded last Friday at Gallery Night with a sign in front of him that said, “Love is Blind.” He held his arms open wide and willingly offered hugs to anyone who approached. He wore a shirt that said, “Love Like Jesus,” and noted his efforts were “not to protest, but rather to project love.”
At last Saturday’s “free speech” rally in Boston, the few white nationalists who showed up were overwhelmed and essentially silenced by 40,000 counter-protestors. Thankfully, the two factions were kept separate and there was nominal violence. Most importantly, the voice of the people was heard. Boston Police Commissioner William Evans told the Boston Globe, “99.9% were [here] for the right reason, and that’s to protest bigotry and hate.”
Charlottesville has revealed the need for a nationwide conversation. Thankfully, many have already ensued, online and in person, regarding a myriad of topics ranging from Confederate statues to NFL protests. At the foundation of each exchange is a critical dialogue regarding the duality of the American experience. If participants are willing to listen, they can start to the journey of “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes,” the foundations of empathy, compassion and understanding.
After Charlottesville, hope remains. Former President Barack Obama tweeted a quote from former South African President Nelson Mandela, who rose to power after being falsely accused and serving 27 years in prison. Mandela left prison with no malice toward his former captors, uniting South Africa. Mandela said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love.” The president’s tweet has received 4.5 million likes on Twitter, becoming the most liked tweet of all time.
Apathy can no longer reign. Citizens must become involved to ensure the next Charlottesville does not take place in their own cities and neighborhoods. Permit requests for similar rallies across the country are being reconsidered or denied in the interest of public safety, but leaders cannot do the heavy lifting alone. It is incumbent upon “We the People” of America to act. Standing united, we can overcome those who seek only to divide. Together, we can create the inclusive community in which we are all proud to live.