On Friday, August 11, 2017, along with millions of others, this writer watched a video of a torchlight parade on and around the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
More than half a century earlier I had been living there: across the street from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church where ministers were meeting on Friday in an effort to plan a non-violent response to the alt-right demonstrations scheduled for downtown Charlottesville the next day.
There were ten or so of us living then in what was then called “Koinonia House” owned by the St. Paul’s congregation. Three of us had been in voting rights demonstrations in Alabama in the spring of 1965.
I was pursuing an accelerated graduate degree in modern European history, focusing on the history of Germany in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. I had grown up in Danville Virginia, the “last capital of the confederacy” and the scene of bloody suppression of voting rights marches my senior year in high school
My family had owned slaves. Too many relatives to count, including my great grandfather, had served under Lee in the North Carolina regiments of the Army of Northern Virginia.
What I saw and heard on Friday reminded me of nothing so much as the Germany I was beginning to know all too well and the Danville of bloody riot and massive resistance in 1963. Same slogans. Same faces. Same anger. Same violence.
On Saturday morning I drove to Charlottesville, arrived around 11:30 in the morning, drove straight into town and parked in the Water Street Parking Garage, two blocks away from what, in my day, was called Lee Park.
As I approached the park, I met alt-right demonstrators armed to the teeth with semi-automatic rifles and sidearms, carrying multiple 30-round magazines. They were quite outspoken about “taking the country back” from “Niggers” and “Jews.” Not only Confederate battle flags, but stylized neo-nazi banners, and genuine Third Reich Nazi swastika banners were openly and proudly displayed.
I neither saw nor heard from anyone among the alt-right demonstrators who even spoke Robert E. Lee’s name, much less spoke of his statue, erected in 1924 at the height of the power of the revived KKK in the years following World War One and the debut of the pro-Klan epic “Birth of a Nation” . . . endorsed and deemed “History written in lightning” by another president who thus empowered the worst among us.
Anti-black, anti-semitic, and neo-Nazi “Blut and Boden” slogans predominated.
A tiny minority of counter demonstrators had arrived wearing helmets and carrying sticks. I saw no firearms among them. The vast majority, 99 % by my estimate, were carrying nothing more dangerous than signs. Many sang hymns. Most stood in silence. Some, however, openly taunted the neo-Nazis and KKK demonstrators. That appeared to be precisely the response they had been hoping for.
As I arrived at the park fighting broke out between what can only be described an armed shield-bearing, riot-helmet-wearing, body-armored “protection detail” of alt-right demonstrators and a few counter demonstrators. Water bottles were thrown. People were beaten with sticks. Pepper spray was used.
Shortly after that the Governor declared a state of emergency and the park cleared.
I followed a heavily armed phalanx bearing battle flags and swastika banners that seemed to be headed for the grounds of the University. As a result, I was nowhere near the violence that left Heather Heyer dead and well over a dozen others injured.
By the time I returned to Water Street a police line had blocked all access to the park, and an armored personnel carrier, converted for law enforcement use, was rolling into position.
Counter demonstrators were heard to shout, “Now you send reinforcements.”
I heard about Heyer’s death on the radio as I drove home.
I have spent most of my life as a serious student of Nazism, racism, the American South, and the Civil War.
Even in Selma, where similar taunts were shouted, and civil rights demonstrators shot and beaten to death, I never encountered anything comparable to the proud, open and unabashed expressions of hate I encountered in Charlottesville.
Even the Alabamans of 1963, at least in my experience, didn’t carry swastika flags.
Lee, I firmly believe, would have been ashamed of what was done in his name . . . in 1924 and in 2017 . . . and perhaps most ashamed of our current, accidental President . . . who, like Wilson, sowed the dragon’s teeth.
For me, anger has been replaced by sorrow.
What have we done to our country, once so full of hope?