Professor: White Supremacists Used Civil Rights Script To Create ‘Unite The Right’ Rally

July 12, 2023 By Mike Mather, Mike Mather,

Aniko Bodroghkozy is a professor who studies history, so she isn’t keen to make it. That changed Aug. 11, 2017, as white supremacists clutching tiki torches marched through the University of Virginia and then, a day later, headed towards the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee statue in downtown Charlottesville.

Bodroghkozy took to the streets as a counterprotester, but steered clear of the violent clashes that were the top national story that night. By the end of the two days of violence, counterprotester Heather Heyer was dead after a car attack that hurt scores of others. And two state police troopers perished when their helicopter that had been monitoring the rioting crashed.

In the days and weeks that followed, Bodroghkozy reflected on how the media tactics employed by “Unite the Right” organizers seemed familiar. Their playbook, she says, looked a lot like what she studies: how 1960s civil rights leaders gained attention for the cause. Those initial thoughts led to a new book, “Making #Charlottesville,” which she recently discussed on the radio show “With Good Reason.”

Bodroghkozy chatted with UVA Today about her experiences and the research that followed.

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Q. Some writers might approach a subject like this from a distance, but you were a counterprotester Aug. 12. How did that affect your writing?

A. That’s right. I had no distance from what I was attempting to make sense of. As a media historian who mostly stays in the 1960s, I don’t tend to write about current or near-current events. But coming out of Charlottesville’s “Summer of Hate,” I had no choice. I felt compelled as someone who had been on the streets, as well as a scholar at this University, to understand what happened using the analytical tools I have. I’ve written and taught about the Civil Rights Movement and media coverage. So I brought a comparative historical framework to the task.

It became clear to me that what happened in Charlottesville was linked to civil rights-era struggles against white supremacy, but in mirror-image reverse. “Charlottesville” became a worldwide media event, as did key campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement, in particular the Birmingham campaign of 1963 and the Selma voting rights campaign of 1965.

In examining how the media covered the Aug. 11 and 12 events in Charlottesville, particularly the most heavily circulated visual imagery, I found surprising similarities and resonances with the most iconic imagery from the Civil Rights Movement: white racists as active and empowered (such as the images of tiki torch marchers in front of the Rotunda chanting their racist, antisemitic slogans); African American victims, prone, helpless and brutalized by racists (such as viral video and images of the beating of DeAndre Harris by pole-wielding alt-right marchers), nonviolent counterprotesters as heroic but imperiled by swarms of white supremacists (like the small group of students at the Jefferson statue surrounded by menacing tiki torch marchers). All of these images have remarkable similarity to the most well-known photos of the civil rights era, telling very similar stories.

Q. You note in your acknowledgments that the “research and the writing were often just plain painful.” Why did you pursue this?

A. I think there are times when we as scholars have to confront the moment we are in. The rise of far-right extremism and its anti-democratic goals, which were brought into sudden high relief by the “Unite the Right” media event, demands our attention. I was supposed to be writing a book about how TV news covered the Kennedy assassination, but it didn’t feel right for me to ignore what had just happened in my town and its profound implications just because it was personally uncomfortable and at times distressing.

Q. What specifically did the marchers from “Unite the Right” borrow from civil-rights protesters from the 1960s?

A. This is part of what was so disturbing to me as I pursued the research. The “Unite the Right” organizers were using the script perfected by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Portrait of Aniko Bodroghkozy
Professor Aniko Bodroghkozy took to the streets Aug. 12, 2017, as a counterprotester to the “Unite the Right” rally. What she experienced led her to explore the similarities between the Civil Rights Movement, how white supremacists gained attention in Charlottesville, and how the media covered both events. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

King and his organization would choose a specific town to enact a series of marches and protests with the expectation that segregationist forces would respond violently. Confrontation and violence were necessary to bring the cameras and especially the relatively new medium of network television news, a visual form of journalism that prized drama. Birmingham and Selma were carefully chosen because the SCLC and other civil rights activists knew both cities had the right ingredients for dramatic confrontation. Of course, the civil rights activists remained nonviolent, but they needed segregationists to respond to their protest violently to hopefully outrage the conscience of national media audiences and lead to federal legislation and social change. Birmingham and Selma were the two most successful examples of this model of protest.

The “Unite the Right” organizers basically flipped the civil rights script. They chose Charlottesville because it had the right ingredients for the violent confrontation they were planning. Charlottesville had a notably well-organized and engaged community of antiracist and antifascist activists that were planning to counterprotest. As we know from the Sines v. Kessler civil trial that found the “Unite the Right” organizers liable for race-based violence and conspiracy, they planned for violent confrontation.

The Charlottesville events were a key part of the social change movement the alt-right was building. It had largely been an online phenomenon, and “Unite the Right” was about bringing the movement into the streets and “in real life.”

The point of that movement was to reverse all the gains of the civil rights revolution and recreate “the White Republic” that in the alt-right time scape disappeared in 1965. That was the year that the Voting Rights Act passed because of the Selma media event. It’s also the year of the Hart-Celler Immigration Act that overhauled the racist 1925 immigration act. The United States became a far more democratic country beginning in 1965, and the alt-right was about dismantling all of those gains. Charlottesville, as their media event, was a stage set for reversing everything the rights movements of the 1960s and beyond had accomplished.

Q. What parallels do you draw from the violence in Charlottesville and the Jan. 6 insurrection?

A. Clearly the dismantling of democracy and the emboldened violence of far-right extremists are the common themes. I focused on the media coverage and here I found similar tropes and narratives. The most frequently circulated images of Jan. 6 presented images of empowered and active white men – whether that was a man commandeering Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office or the “Q-Anon shaman” howling in the halls of Congress.

Q. You write that government leaders, law-enforcement supervisors and media members all failed to understand that violence was the goal of the “Unite the Right” gathering. Many say those same failures were repeated ahead of the Jan. 6 insurrection. What are the lessons that should be learned from Charlottesville and the Capitol?

A. The “Unite the Right” and “Stop the Steal” rallies were both major media events that put into high relief the fragility of the democratic and rights expansions that followed from the social change movements of the 1960s. We can’t assume any more (if we ever should have) that those victories are permanent. The Voting Rights Act has already been considerably shredded.

But in Charlottesville, as I show in the book, counterprotesters showed up in large numbers to confront and challenge the forces of white supremacy and neo-fascism. It can be hard and scary, but it’s necessary.

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Mike Mather

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