A history of violence and activism
“It’s not something you read that causes you to change … It’s when you see other individuals fight against the system; believing that justice will come, even if you have to lose your life.”
– Dr. Bernard Lafayette
The severity of the violence that took place in Charlottesville has made it very difficult to write about. There has been a need for processing that began with simply getting over the shock that something like that could still happen in our country. The display of hatred and violence that we have all seen was one that represents the reality of racism and discrimination that has existed in our country since its foundation, and one that many of us thought we’d moved past.
One of the most powerful conversations I remember having with Dr. Bernard Lafayette on the bus was when I asked him how it felt to make the annual trip back to Selma. I asked how good it felt to go back and reflect on all that he’d accomplished. He was one of the very first people on the ground and went into a small town in Alabama that had been deemed unchangeable by SNCC in 1962. His response changed the way I understand foot soldiers in the movement. He told me that he is just beginning, for the first time, to have emotions around it because he did not expect to live to see this point in his life or in Selma’s history. He talked about the experience of having friends killed in the movement and the constant threat and experiences of violence that he faced. He did not expect to live this long. I recalled this conversation upon learning that activist and ally Heather Heyer had been killed at the Charlottesville protest.
The first part of my own processing around the events in Charlottesville was to think back on the civil rights footsoldiers and leaders who I’ve met and those who I’ve learned about over the years with Project Pilgrimage. My feelings of shock and disbelief, I realized, were their constant reality on the front lines of the struggle toward racial justice. The mobs, the hatred and the violence that we got a glimpse of were part of their daily lives.
One term that seemed to be trending online everywhere was “white supremacy”. This was a group of white supremacists that rallied together acting on their core ideologies. Words echoed in the streets as they marched yelling at the top of their lungs “you, will not, replace us!” Seeing these images and hearing this affirmation led me to think more deeply about what precisely is white supremacy. There are a wealth of books, articles, history and context that can help answer this question, but I wanted to boil it down to the simplest possible. White supremacy is exactly how it sounds, the fundamental belief that white people are inherently better than everyone else; they are better in every way and superior in every space. This is the belief that tips the scales of challenge and hardship for black people in every systemic institution in our society, from incarceration statistics to the education achievement gap, and in turn tips the scales of privilege and opportunity for white people in every systemic institution in our society. This is something we learned about in our explicit racism sessions during our weekly meetings pre-pilgrimage.
On a personal level it is the foundational belief in the minds of both white and black people. It is this same belief that enables young children to choose the white doll over the black when asked which one is better and it is this same belief that has caused our country to internalize verdict after verdict after verdict that declared that black lives do not matter.
The third component of processing the events in Charlottesville was the images that began to surface of UVA students, with their heads down, holding a sign that read “VA Students Act Against White Supremacy”. They stood in the middle of a torch-wielding, screaming group of white supremacists the night before all the news media arrived and before the majority of counter protesters arrived. I couldn’t believe their courage.
This moment reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Bob Zellner on the bus when he talked about being attacked by a group of whites for being a part of SNCC. He described a man trying to gouge out his eyeball as he hung for life to a railing, knowing that if he’d allowed the mob to carry him away he would surely be killed. The image of these students brought new meaning to that conversation. I tried to put myself in their shoes and tried to imagine the terror they must’ve felt in that moment. At the same time it was an image of immense hope and encouragement of the level of commitment by white allies in today’s movement.
The final stage in processing this event came three days later when our nation’s president couldn’t make up his mind on where he stood. The realization was that he made very clear where he stood during his campaign when he created real life spaces of violence toward black people, hatred and white supremacy at his campaign rallies. There was little expectation of him to rise to the occasion as a leader, standing up for what’s right, but watching his response blaming “both sides” solidified another teaching from the civil rights movement.
Throughout the civil rights movement Dr. Martin Luther King refused to wait for politicians to stand up for justice. He dealt directly with the leadership of George Wallace that harnessed racism and discrimination for political gain. The movement thrived in spite of government not because of it. It was, however, both inspiring and empowering to see an outpouring of support from several civic leaders from around the country and particularly the very direct condemnation from VA Governor Terry McAuliffe, but a clear reminder that resistance at the grassroots level will be a catalyst in the work toward racial justice under this administration.
As our community works to move through these spaces in understanding what led to the events in Charlottesville and coping with the reality in which our country still lives, it is now more important than ever to continue our work together. Project Pilgrimage leadership will be hosting a series of conversations this fall, and we will continue to host opportunities for direct action of service and partnership in our communities. What I have come to understand in the wake of this, and the many other tragic events in our country in recent years, is that I am presented with choices. With the pilgrimage community we are building, we can continue our work. Today, I get to use the knowledge I’ve acquired about leaders and organizers, both sung and unsung in our history books, to move forward. Using the principles they practiced, the strategies they employed and love they continuously demonstrated as the guidebook by which to rise in this moment and stand for justice.