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.
Thank you so much for writing this. As someone who also grew up in various small towns in the South — and who only very recently moved away from Charlottesville, Virginia — this piece rings painfully true and is so eloquently put. What happened this weekend in Charlottesville is sickening, and saddening… and it is also just wretchedly unsurprising.
Thanks for this, Heather. I grew up going to the laser show at Stone Mountain, too. It’s weird looking back at how not-weird all of that felt at the time. You’re right that all of this was there all along, but now they feel empowered by trump.
This was also a very anti-Jewish action. The marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us”. They call themselves Nazis, and while that’s come to mean any kind of generic evil, in fact Nazis come from a specific context — one anchored by violent, genocidal opposition to Jewish existence.
As you rightly point out, this was an anti-Black, anti-Muslim, anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-immigrant action. We should definitely focus on that and those communities. It was also specifically, by name, an anti-Jewish action.
Anti-Jewishness is rising around the world. It is scary and violent and has led to terrible terrible things in the past. The very first step to combating that is getting people to know it and recognize it and talk about it. Please, please focus on that and that community too.
Here’s why I’m scared: right now it feels like Jews are getting from the Left *and* the Right. In words of this tweet,
I feel like, can someone please stand up for us? Please? Maybe just starting with what’s actually happening?
I’m so sorry you’re feeling this way. It is very scary and upsetting to see so much anti-Semitism everywhere. Just know that there are many people out there (like me) who support and will stand up against bigotry/hate towards Jewish people.
Its bc dumb “leftists” use Israel’s crappy behavior as an excuse to hate Jews in a more general sense. I take SERIOUS issues with Israeli policies and wont bother to argue about it here (seriously pls no) but to hate Jews bc Israel tramples human rights under a flag w a star of David is no smarter or mature than to hate Muslims bc Saudi Arabia tramples human rights under a flag with the shahada on it. I bet those same dummies like to forget their pals Jesus the Christ and Bernie Sanders (who they think are the same person :/) are Jews.
I loved this piece, and I also agree with you, especially as a brown Jewish lady.
Thank you for your words and prospective Heather.
As a white woman I am encouraging my friends and family to reach out to each other and educate them
Thank you for your words and prospective Heather.
It is, and I saw this last night on tumblr that give a good info on what “Jew will not replace us” means.
This was so well written and exactly the small hug I needed today. Thank you, Heather.
Thank you for this Heather. I echo previous comments, it’s as atrocious as it is unsurprising. The mayor of the city I live in now just announced that they’re going to remove 2 Confederate statues from the courthouse (my hometown did so earlier this year). The fact that I live in a state that was never part of the Confederacy makes this all the more ludicrous.
A few months ago there was a neo-Nazi gathering in my country. The neo-Nazis proudly waved the US flag, feeling like it belonged there with them, like it represented fascism now. That’s what Donald Trump has done for America.
I can’t believe people are surprised by these Nazi demonstrations, or (even more so) by Trump’s lackluster response. His support of these guys was well documented before the election. His top advisors have known white supremacist affiliations. Truly, this racism is a feature of Trump’s presidency, not a bug.
Thanks for writing this Heather
Heather, thank you for giving context to this weekend that those of us who didn’t grow up in the American South might have been lacking. This was really needed, and I super appreciate you (yet again) baring your soul on the internet. Thank you.
I can relate so much to this. Looking back on growing up in the south I’m struck by the normalcy of racism. I lived in South Carolina. All the roads and monuments were named after Confederate soldiers and well known racist. We drove on John C Calhoun Blvd to go to church. My grandparents openly talked about lynching black people. In the present. My brother had a huge Confederate flag in his room. We thought the Duke boys were cool with the General Lee and flag on top. The civil war was the war of nothern aggression. Slavery was marginalized and justified. It’s scary to think about how normal and accepted the hate can be. I Don’t really know how my parents broke the cycle of hate in their respective families. I think moving away helped quite a bit. My racist relatives have never left about a 50 square mile area of SC. It’s easier to think for yourself when you don’t have somebody pounded their beliefs in your head on a regular basis. It allowed them to look around and think for themselves. We moved back to my hometown, Asheville NC, when I was in junior high. The people I graduated from high school with are ardent Trump supporters. The racism is there too. It just looks different. In SC they bussed in black students to my school. I’m right this second realizing that it was probably some kind of federally mandated desegregation. It was the 70’s in SC. I remember wondering why they didn’t have school where they lived. In high school there was a handful of black students. So different atmospheres help shape the racism in different ways. I was really surprised at how white my high school was. This article has made me think about my experiences in a new way. Some days I just want to cry because I feel so powerless and what has been happening is just bullshit. It helps to know I’m not in it alone.
This is very scary
This pretty much describes my childhood.