My thoughts and feeling about the recent demonstration and violence in Charlottesville and the events that followed are like the rivulets in a delta, crisscrossing in a haphazard way, but in the end, all headed to the same place. That place is that white supremacy, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and violence against people, to terrorize them or because of their beliefs, are all antithetical to democratic values and to human decency. There can be no innocent or good participation in them.
The series of events of the week left me swirling. They included:
- The Charlottesville white supremacist protest and the counter-protests;
- The increasingly common, protester caused, death by automobile of a young woman;
- Overt anti-Semitism by the marchers, and a report of the fear and courage of one Charlottesville Jewish synagogue;
- The emotional, thoughtful and intense reaction of my own Beth El congregation;
- My reflections on the relative privilege and security of American Jews;
- The moral ambiguity of response of President Trump—and his dog whistle, or overt, condoning of white nationalism;
- The toppling of a confederate statue in Durham, and the false rumors of a KKK march;
- My late-to-the-game understanding of the history of the erection of these Civil War monuments, and their intended statement of white supremacy; and
- My own, coincidental, trip to the Crockett—Miller Slave Quarters outside New Bern.
Monuments: I am convinced that the Civil War monuments were primarily erected as a statement of white supremacy, intended to remind the black residents of the American South of white control and to intimidate them. The Durham monument was erected at the County Courthouse in 1924, in the Jim Crow era of NC. To say monuments should be preserved as a lesson in Civil War history is like saying we should have monuments honoring Hitler to remind us of the horror of the Shoah.
Free Speech: Though I vehemently disagree with the tenets of this alt-right movement, I defend their right to have those beliefs, to speak and to march. But they do not have a right to incite, encourage or engage in violence. Honestly, I also have a problem with their right to publicly spew or teach hate, which should be clearly condemned by leaders of all stripes. But if speech doesn’t incite violence, I don’t think it should be officially punished. It’s a harder question for me how private people should respond. For example, is it okay for private employers to fire employees who spew hate on their off time, but don’t bring their hate or violence into the workplace?
Jews: We are on the inside and on the outside in America now. We are, relatively speaking, well educated, well-resourced and positioned well to have our voices heard. So, it’s hard to imagine that in this part of the 21st century, Jews will be the target of de jure or widespread oppression. But isn’t this what the Jews in Germany thought in the early 1930’s? Jews rightfully feel anguish at the rise in overt anti-Semitism in America today. So how can we appropriately be self-protective, without putting our angst at the center? We need to respond both self-protectively as Jews and courageously as Americans who have a duty toward people of color, immigrants and Muslims who are more vulnerable and less secure than we are. Perhaps this is an opportunity for an authentic alliance between Jewish communities and other groups that are targets of white supremacist hate.
The President: What seems important about his moral ambivalence and his condoning or support of white supremacy, is that we prevent his messages from normalizing these ideas and activities and that we prevent white nationalism from becoming a legitimate movement.
Rumors: It seems likely people connected with the people that toppled the Confederate statue in Durham started the false rumors of a KKK march in Durham on Friday. I am not sure what information backed up their tweets, but being part of a just cause doesn’t make it acceptable to be irresponsible. These rumors bred significant anxiety and disruption in Durham. They have a “cry wolf” effect. Next time, we will all take them less seriously, even if next time we need to be taking precautions. Neither side should use social media to spread unsubstantiated rumors.
More on Monuments: By coincidence, a week after the march in Charlottesville I spent a morning in New Bern at the Crockett Miller Slave Quarters and the adjacent cemetery, which houses the remains of 522 former slaves and freed men in unmarked graves. Ben Watford has spent his retirement preserving this history. He was informative, and his sincerity was deeply moving. He told us about the realities of slave life; how Union General Burnside took in the thousands of runaway slaves who sought protection during the Civil War; life in the Jim Crow South; his own life growing up poor and black in Hertford County in the 1930’s and 40’s; and how the US Marines carelessly “lost” the grave markers for 521 of the black people buried in the cemetery when they were building Cherry Point in 1941. He told us all of this without bitterness, but with commitment to the need to understand the truth of these times and the human causes and impacts of these events. These physical remains are the monuments that need to be preserved, and we and our children need to reckon with that history.
Leslie Winner, former Executive Director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and former N.C. Senator