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Reflections on the removal of the Charlottesville Confederate statues

The author (third from right) standing with friends in the park where Robert E. Lee's statue once dominated. All of them played some part, along with so many others, in the events of A11/12. MICHAEL CHEUK PHOTO
The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas
The author (third from right) standing with friends in the park where Robert E. Lee's statue once dominated. All of them played some part, along with so many others, in the events of A11/12. MICHAEL CHEUK PHOTO

It happens every year. As the anniversary of the August 12, 2017, Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville approaches, I can feel the anxiety begin to rise. The first year, I wasn’t quite sure what was causing my dis-ease in the weeks leading up to A11/12 (as we who were there have shorthanded it). But once the 12th came, the sensitivity to loud noises, sirens, and helicopters flying overhead were pretty clear signals.

For those of you who don’t know about that part of my life and ministry, I was one of the clergy organizers in that “summer of hate.” A Mother’s Day tiki torch rally around the Robert E. Lee statue, Proud Boys earning their stripes by intimidation and violence along Charlottesville’s downtown pedestrian mall, a Ku Klux Klan rally on July 8 around the Stonewall Jackson monument, and the weeks of planning and preparation for what we knew would be a violent day in mid-August – we were in a constant state of vigilance for the next burst of white supremacist activity, trying to protect our community, our congregations, and those most vulnerable to attack.

This year was different. In July, I watched as friends livestreamed the removal of the Lee and Jackson statues, followed by two non-Confederate but equally racist memorials to Lewis and Clark and George Rogers Clark. It was stunning to watch, even from afar, and I shed a lot of tears. Those Confederate participation trophies, as Prof. Jalane Schmidt of UVA labelled them, stood for years as a reminder to Black folks that they did not really belong, that they weren’t equal. This belief requires a distortion of history, though, when you understand that the Black population in Charlottesville was larger than the white population during the Civil War. Yes, the majority of them were enslaved, but Albemarle County was still their home.

So, Blacks in Charlottesville had these reminders of racial terror confronting them for almost 100 years, and four years ago, hundreds of white supremacists came to town to try to keep them there. Before it was over, more than 30 counter-protesters suffered serious physical injury from which many are still recovering, Heather Heyer was dead, and two state policemen died when their helicopter that had circled overhead all day crashed just outside of town. To witness those statues come down was stunning.

An irresistible urge to see it for myself gnawed at me for many weeks, so a couple of weeks ago, I hopped in my car and drove to Charlottesville for the first time since shortly after I had left. I reached out to the Charlottesville Clergy Collective of which I had been the co-convener, and let people know that I would be there on a certain day and time and invited any who were available to come pray with me over these empty spaces. A handful were able to join me in remembering and reminiscing and offering prayers for continued healing of Charlottesville and our nation. We walked over the now-empty ground where Lee and Jackson once stood, we paused at the marker where enslaved people were auctioned, and we prayed together.

There is something about shared trauma that makes it hard to process outside the company of those who share it with you. On the first anniversary, as I was trying to cope with not being in Charlottesville, Prof. Schmidt reminded me that after World War II, all the old vets would go down to the VFW and tell war stories, but then they went home and rarely mentioned it. While my experience was certainly not comparable to a global war, the trauma has a similar effect. Sharing it with these friends, clergy and activists and community members, provided healing refreshment.

One of the events we recalled as we stood there on the dirt and stones where a giant plinth held up Lee and his horse, Traveler, was the early morning hours of August 12, when those of us who would be counter-protesting the rally gathered for a prayer meeting at First Baptist Church, the oldest Black congregation in Charlottesville. Dr. Cornel West, the legendary activist, theologian, scholar, and public intellectual – knowing that what lay ahead of us that day would be violent and dangerous and frightening – looked at us, pointing his finger, and said in his inimitable voice, “Do not forget that those you meet today were created in the image of God, just as you were. God loves them, too.”

Of all the searing memories of that long, hot summer in Charlottesville, those words continue to echo. There have been many times over the past four years when I found it hard to see God’s image in the racists, white supremacists, COVID-deniers, election conspiracists, January 6 insurrectionists, and Q-Anoners. That is why I am always, always grateful to be part of a community of people who remind me of this and who rely on me to remind them, in turn. Jesus knew when people were just going through the motions, doing the right things but harboring judgment and resentment in their hearts. Our work – the work of justice and peace and reconciliation – requires deep, abiding love. It also requires patience and perseverance. Who knows what monuments to hate might yet come down if we keep our hand on the plow and hold on.

The Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas is Rector of All Saints Episcopal Parish, Hoboken.