- Introduction to the Special Forum: In the Aftermath of the Hate Rally in Charlottesville
The 2015 slaying of nine Black churchgoers in a Charleston church by a white nationalist sporting Confederate symbols revived political debate over the prominence of Confederate memorials and symbols in urban landscapes across the southern United States. City after city reached decisions to take down statues of Confederate officers, in recognition of the ways in which their prominence signaled the ongoing exclusion and devaluing of Americans of African descent. Charlottesville, Virginia, home to the University of Virginia, joined the wave of municipalities wrestling with and reaching these decisions. The City Council voted in February 2017 to remove the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that loomed over downtown Lee Park, but the project was delayed by a lawsuit filed by opponents of the decision. White nationalist leader Richard Spencer held a rally in Lee Park in May 2017 to gin up opposition to the statue’s removal. In response, City Council voted to rename the park Emancipation Park even as the lawsuit stalled efforts to remove the statue itself. In mid-August 2017, Richard Spencer joined with a local white nationalist figure to instigate a massive hate rally at the base of the statue. Carrying torches through the summer night and chanting slogans of hate, the Unite the Right protesters were met by counter protesters in a clash that resulted in numerous injuries and the death by weaponized vehicle of Heather Heyer, one of the counter protesters.
The white nationalist hate rally in Charlottesville was a continuation of the deep-seated racial animus which threads through the fabric of this country. White nationalist outrage at the cultural and demographic changes which push forcefully against their racist vision of a white Christian country was augured in the actions of the murderer who ended the lives of nine members of Charleston’s Mother Emanuel Church. That man is said to have accused them of taking over the country—and later explained to investigators that he wanted to start a race war. The white nationalists gathered in Emancipation Park in August 2017 were in large part heeding that call.
However shocking the hate rally in Charlottesville seemed at the time, in hindsight, such mass expression of racial animus seems to have been predictable in these tumultuous times. Many signs pointed to the societal churn that was bound to erupt at some point. The presidential campaign season and year one of the Trump presidency have turned up the [End Page 6] heat on racial animus in all regions of the country, giving license to white nationalists and their compatriots to come out of the so-called shadows to proclaim their retrograde vision for America. The hate rally in Charlottesville seemed tectonic nonetheless, highlighting the fault lines dividing US society. That the removal of a Confederate memorial honoring General Robert E. Lee was the provocation for the hate rally signals that the pull of historical allegiances against modern progress remains strong. As in many other periods of history, rapid technological, social and economic change is provoking strong reactions that hearken back to some version of a romanticized past. For white nationalists, the romance is with the chimera of a white Christian nation.
As plans have been made to add or remove or alter monuments to the Confederacy in various locations, they have served as catalysts for public debate, in “awareness of the myriad historical geographies of place and landscape that help to shape everyday life in unjust and unequal ways” as Richard Schein suggests in an essay in this Special Forum (see page 12). The Southeastern Geographer has a long history of critical engagement with the conflicted place of Confederate and “Lost Cause” monuments within landscapes of memory. Jon Bohman (2013) for example reads struggle over representations of neo-Confederate nationalism in Lexington, Virginia in relation to contested understandings of Southern masculinity. Jamie Essex (2002) traces the commodification of Stone Mountain, Georgia, a center of Ku Klux Klan activities in the Jim Crow era, as a landscape of Southern white identity construction, arguing that the commodification of Stone Mountain Park resituates racial and regional identities in relation...