Violence in Charlottesville: Feelings 'as bitter as we've had short of civil war'

Visitors and media look over the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Lee park in Charlottesville, Va., Monday, Aug. 14, 2017. The removal of the statue is in litigation and is at the center of the racial tensions and demonstrations in the town. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

At the center of the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Va. that left three people dead this weekend was a bronze statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

White nationalists affiliated with the Unite the Right group came from all over the country to Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park, to protest the removal of the statue. Like many other cities around the country, Charlottesville has come under increasing pressure from its citizens to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces.

While the removal of the statue appears to be the catalyst for the violent protests, historians noted that the rising tensions have less to do with the monuments themselves and more to do with underlying political strains that have compelled some individuals to relive the country's worst moments in real time.

"I think the current feeling is as bitter as we've had short of civil war," said Dr. James Robertson, Civil War scholar and former Virginia Tech professor.

The violence in Charlottesville was "heartbreaking," Roberston said, but Robert E. Lee's bronze figure was not the cause. "I don't think what happened on Saturday had anything to do with the monument. It was two groups out looking for trouble and they got it."

Demonstrations began on Friday night as men carried torches across the University of Virginia campus, in a scene all too reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan rallies. Fighting broke out on Saturday when white nationalists and counter-protesters met face to face in the town. The confrontations resulted in dozens of injuries, the death of 32-year-old protester, a helicopter crash that killed two police officers and the declaration of a state of emergency declaration by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D).

President Donald Trump came forward with a statement condemning white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups as "criminals and thugs." This direct statement on Monday followed widespread criticism that the president's original condemnation of "hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides," provided cover to the hate groups.

After the events in Charlottesville, a number of cities are moving to fast-track the removal of Confederate monuments.

On Monday evening, protesters toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier in Durham, N.C. The monument stood outside the court house and was inscribed with the words "The Confederate States of America."

In Nashville, Tenn., Governor Bill Haslam (R) issued a statement calling for the removal of the bust of Confederate general and Grand Wizard of the KKK Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capitol. Tennesseans expressed renewed outrage over the statue inside the state house following the events in Charlottesville.

"I do not believe Nathan Bedford Forrest should be one of the individuals we honor at the Capitol," Gov. Haslam said. He went on to "strongly encourage" the appropriate state authorities to take action to remove the bust.

In Lexington, Ky., Mayor Jim Gray announced he is seeking permission to remove and relocate statues of Confederate general John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge, Vice President under James Buchanan and Confederate Secretary of War.

"The tragic events in Charlottesville today have accelerated the announcement I intended to make next week," Gray said on Saturday. The statues now sit on the same site as Cheapside auction block, once one of the largest slave auction sites in America. The mayor proposed placing the statues in a community park alongside two statues honoring the Union effort as a way to explain the history of the Civil War "accurately and truthfully."

In Baltimore, Mayor Catherine Pugh issued a statement on Monday announcing her intention to remove the city's Confederate monuments. In 2016, a city commission studied the issue and recommended removing two monuments to generals Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and Robert E. Lee and a monument to pro-slavery Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney. Pugh's demands go even further, requesting permission to remove four statues.

Pugh's announcement follows just one day after hundreds of protesters rallied in Baltimore, denouncing the violence and hate in Charlottesville.

Dr. Kerry L. Haynie, director of Duke University's Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender, struck a note of caution in removing the Confederate monuments.

"I am fearful as an educator that we will forget the past," Haynie noted. "You often see now in textbooks and various places almost a denial of a slavery past or a racist past. One of the purposes those monuments serve is to remind us of that past."

He is concerned that those important lessons may take time to sink in. "My theory is it will get worse before it gets better," Haynie said, pointing to a lack of leadership in Washington and at the grassroots level.

"When it takes the president a couple of days to respond to racism and white supremacy on the part of the KKK, neo-Nazis and the so-called alt-right .... that is troubling. And I think that gives some of those elements the belief that they can act without there being a strong response."

The calls to remove Confederate symbols and monuments from public spaces have been growing louder in recent years. They reached a high point in 2015, when the people of South Carolina voted to remove the Confederate flag from the state house after Dylann Roof, a white nationalist, shot and killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Haynie explained that the resurgence of white nationalists rallying around Confederate iconography has more to do with demographic changes in the country, not the monuments themselves.

"These monuments to the confederacy are not the real issue. What underlies the protests around the monuments is the unease at the changing demographics," he said, pointing to the growing proportion of African Americans, Latinos as a part of the overall U.S. population. "So removing the symbols of the confederacy wont change that ... If its not the monumnets it will be something else."

Robertson, who served as the executive director of the U.S. Civil War Centennial Commission earlier in his career, advised that a city can remove the statues, "but the spirit and the memories linger."

In the coming weeks, Richmond, Va., once the capitol of the Confederate states, could become the next battleground in the fight over Civil War monuments.

State officials confirmed on Monday that group dedicated to preserving Confederate monuments has requested a permit to gather at the city's prominent Robert E. Lee monument. After the violence in Charlottesville, it is not clear whether the permit will be granted.

The growing politicization and the polarization in the country today is creating an environment that is the most dangerous for the American democracy, Dr. Robertson warned.

"The Civil War came because we Americans lost the one thing that holds us together ... and that is the willingness to compromise," he said. "Saturday is a classic and terrible illustration of the loss of compromise and the unwillingness to sit down and reason out our differences."

The decision to remove statues or monuments to the Confederacy will be made by the local jurisdictions that erected those statues. Overcoming the fear and hatred that uses those monuments as rallying points, will take a more concerted effort.

"I'm optimistic about the future—gosh knows we underwent a civil war and survived as a nation," Robertson noted. "But I don't know how much blood has got to flow, how many obscenties have got to be done, how many people have got to be injured before we come to our senses."

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