This past Friday night, when several hundred white supremacist men and women marched on the main quadrangle at the University of Virginia, they carried torches that recalled—and that were no doubt intended to recall—Ku Klux Klan cross burnings, and they chanted, “You will not replace us” and “Jew will not replace us,” setting in motion a series of events that led to the death on Saturday of counter-protestor Heather Heyer and the wounding of nineteen others. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Ms. Heyer’s family and friends, the family and friends of those who were wounded, and to the family, friends, and colleagues of the law enforcement officers—Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates—who died when the helicopter in which they were monitoring Saturday’s protest and counter-protest crashed. Our thoughts as well are with all the people of good will in Charlottesville, and with the students, faculty, administration, and staff of the University of Virginia, whose challenge now will be to confront in a healing way the lethal hatred those white supremacists embodied.
Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally—for which the march on Friday night served as prelude—was organized by white supremacist Jason Kessler to oppose Charlottesville’s plans to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a city park. While symbols of the Confederacy have long been contested territory throughout the South—even more so since white supremacist Dylann Roof gunned down nine African American men and women in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina—the larger implications of “Unite the Right” were articulated perhaps most clearly by David Duke, former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. As quoted in The New York Times, Duke declared that Saturday’s protesters were “going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump [to] take our country back.” White supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. revealed the ugliest and most honest face of those promises when he drove his car, after police had dispersed the “Unite the Right” rally, into a crowd of counter protesters, killing Ms. Heyer and wounding those nineteen others.
As educators, it is our responsibility not only to help our students understand the history of race and white supremacy in this country, but also to navigate, critically and responsibly, how our media, our political leaders, our public intellectuals and others are responding to these specific events—from the forceful condemnations spoken by, among others, Charlottesville’s mayor, Mike Singer, and Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, to the thorough inadequacy of President Trump’s initial statements and the political gamesmanship of those whose job it is to spin those statements into something more appropriate to the situation. As NCCFT President Frank Frisenda put it, “Hatred has once again gained legitimacy in a dysfunctional segment of American society. We are obligated to address this problem in and out of our classrooms as the crisis it has become. As we prepare to do so, though, our thoughts, first and foremost, are with the victims and people of Charlottesville.”