On Friday night a mob of white men and women wielding torches descended on the University of Virginia ahead of a planned “Unite the Right” white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville. They carried confederate flags and paraphernalia emblazoned with swastikas, shouting “Heil Trump,” “we will not be replaced,” and literal Nazi slogans like “blood and soil.” On Saturday, 20-year-old white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. plowed his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Hayer and injuring 19 other people. That act of domestic terrorism and the violent scuffles that followed prompted Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe to declare a state of emergency and order protesters to disperse or face arrest.
As I watched the images from Charlottesville come across my social media feed and play out on the news, I was struck by how familiar it all looked. I grew up in a small town in rural Georgia just outside a city the same size as Charlottesville. I saw my first KKK rally before I was in kindergarten, driving home from the grocery store with my grandmother, a sea of white robes against the backdrop of a night sky on fire, a twenty-foot cross burning in a front yard right by the roadside.
Earlier this year the city of Charlottesville voted to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee from a park formerly called Lee Park. That was the reason for the “Unite the Right” rally and the mob that sprang up around it. But Charlottesville could have easily been my hometown or any of the countless other southern towns and cities I’ve visited or traveled through in my life, finally voting to rid itself of some statue or plaque or park or street named after a famous slave owner or confederate army soldier. That mob of men carrying those torches could have easily been the boys I grew up with, graduated with, dated, and was baptized alongside.
My childhood and early adulthood in Georgia were steeped in confederate imagery. Twenty, thirty, fifty trucks driving by the gas station with confederate flags trailing behind them. Camo. Gun racks. Mufflers meant to force you to pay attention. “Nowhere good,” is what my dad used to say when I asked where they were going, and that was the end of the discussion. It was a fact of life. We watched Gone With the Wind starting in fifth grade and every year thereafter when it was time to study The Civil War. Some of the football coaches who doubled as history teachers called it “The War of Northern Aggression.” Nothing got cheers as loud as Elvis’ rendition of “I Wish I Was in Dixie” at the Stone Mountain laser show we attended every summer. (Stone Mountain itself is a 1,686-foot quartz dome that sits in east Atlanta and features carvings of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis.) Some of my family live right off a street named “Jim Crow.” The Georgia state flag was was the confederate flag until after I was in college, and the legislation that forced the change caused ruptures in churches and business and families statewide.
Southern white people my age love The Dukes of Hazzard like they love church, which makes sense because the show tells a story they revere. Bo and Luke Duke, driving around in their ’69 Dodge Charger, The General Lee, construction cone orange with a confederate flag painted on top, fighting corrupt politicians to preserve tradition and secure their way of life. Bo and Luke are establishment south, but they’re presented as outsiders, little guys standing up against The Man. And “Uncle Jesse don’t take kindly to no government assistance. He’d rather starve.” Waylon Jennings croons the theme song, which really says it all: Just some good ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm.
The boys I grew up with thought of themselves the same way. They wore their confederate flags and shirts and hats, tossed out racist jokes as casually as breathing. They used racial slurs in the official names of their high school clubs and tagged the school with graffiti using white supremacist symbols and language. These guys weren’t outsiders. They were the homecoming kings, the star athletes, and the smartest guys in science class. They dated the nicest, most popular girls in school. They weren’t even forced to clean up their own spray painted defacement. They were “just good ol’ boys,” after all. They didn’t “mean any harm.”
Those good ol’ boys grew up into good ol’ men whose Baptist church theology became inextricably linked with Fox News, and whose distrust of The Man found new life when The Man became an Ivy League-educated black president. For eight years those men became more and more isolated from reality as the conservative punditry herd used every propaganda trick under the sun to convince them that the white men who shot unarmed black teenagers were heroes, that all Muslims are terrorists, that gay people want to destroy their freedom of religion, that trans women are using public bathrooms to hunt their children, that immigrants are taking their jobs and making their cities violent hellscapes.
The neo-Nazi cancer that took over Charlottesville this weekend is and has always been alive in my hometown and yours, all of our lives. The boys (and some of the girls) I grew up with started crafting their torches when we were kids, from the stories we were told and the symbols and statues and road names we were surrounded by. They wove them together with growing resentment from imagined oppression, from fear of fictitious persecution. They are on Facebook even now defending the mob, Trump’s unwillingness to call white supremacy by its name, pictures of their guns and their kids and quotes from Jesus.
The step from “good ol’ boy” to “armed white supremacist mob member” is as simple as believing you have to protect a way of life that’s under attack by an “other.” Donald Trump ran a presidential campaign hell bent on cementing those imaginary fears in white men and women. And then he stepped into the White House, lit every single torch, and invited his followers to start setting things on fire.