In the wake of yesterday’s deadly attack on anti-fascist protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia, some may be wondering – why there? The city is small, with a population under 50,000, and rarely makes headlines. And yet it became the center of attention for white supremacists, thanks to its deep connections to some of the most complex chapters of American history and how it has handled that legacy.
The immediate trigger for yesterday’s rally-turned-riot was the Charlottesville City Council’s efforts to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and to rename the park where it stood. The statue was erected in 1924 with funding from Paul Goodloe McIntire, a commodity trader. McIntire also sponsored the creation of a nearby statue of Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and gave generously to the University of Virginia. The University, in turn, helped define Charlottesville's identity as a liberal bastion in a former Confederate state.
The treatment of Confederate monuments and symbols in the South has become increasingly contentious in recent years. Liberal and progressive groups argue that leaving them intact amounts to a refusal to reckon with the legacy of slavery and white supremacism in the U.S., while some conservatives regard the symbols as more neutral tributes to the sacrifice and valor of Confederate soldiers.
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The decision to remove the statue stirred up local controversy, and quickly attracted the attention of national alt-right and white supremacist activist groups. Many of the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville had little connection to the South. Richard Spencer, an alt-right leader scheduled to speak at yesterday’s events, had organized a previous march protesting the statue's removal in May. In July, the KKK also held a rally there.
Spencer, at least, clearly regards the Lee statue less as a symbol of Southern heritage than as a convenient proxy for an explicitly racist agenda. Spencer has said he wanted to make Charlottesville “the center of the universe” for his movement, whose goals include an end to immigration and the establishment of a whites-only “ethno-state”.
Whatever the intent of Spencer and his allies, yesterday’s events will almost certainly make it more difficult for conservative politicians to publicly defend Confederate symbols. In the case of the Charlottesville statue, those defenders have included Corey Stewart, a candidate in the recent Virginia Republican gubernatorial primary and former state chairman for the Trump campaign.
Confederate defenders were similarly set back by violent extremists in 2015, when South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley moved to pull down Confederate flags from the state capitol. Haley, a Republican, was able to push state legislators to approve the flag's removal only after a white supremacist terrorist attack on a Charleston church attracted national scrutiny.