On Wednesday night, thousands of University of Virginia and Charlottesville community members retraced the steps that neo-Nazi and white supremacist protestors took last Friday, a powerful repudiation of hate and bigotry.
The procession began around 9 p.m. in Nameless Field, where a sea of candles slowly lit up the night. From there, marchers wound through Grounds and down McCormick Road before pouring onto the Lawn in a steady stream. Hundreds of voices joined in songs like “We Shall Overcome,” “Amazing Grace,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “This Land is Your Land,” “Lean on Me,” and of course, “The Good Old Song.”
At one point, those hymns came to a quiet close and a solemn hush fell as a speaker requested a moment of silence for Heather Heyer and state troopers H. Jay Cullen and Berke Bates – the three victims who lost their lives over the weekend. Third-year student Joy Collins then read a poem by Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise.”
The march, planned by students with support from the UVA administration, was both peaceful and powerful; uplifting and sobering – and above all, a stark contrast to the weekend’s violence.
It was also the first time that the UVA community gathered on a large scale since the demonstrations that led to three deaths and many more injuries, and sent shockwaves across the community and the world. Other events are already being planned by students and administrators, with more details forthcoming.
“Throughout our history, students have been on the forefront of change at the University,” said fourth-year student Bryanna Miller, the student representative on UVA’s Board of Visitors and one of the leaders of Wednesday’s event. “We live and breathe student self-governance, and that is why you see student marshals and student organizers tonight.”
Fellow student organizer Ryan Keen, a fourth-year student majoring in biochemistry, said he hopes the event will show how much support is available within the UVA community.
“The greatest power we have to heal is our ability to support each other,” he said. “We have to show what we stand for and what it means to be inclusive. We will not stand for the hate that has been shown here.”
The crowd included many alumni, faculty, staff and friends who wanted to prove Keen’s point and stand alongside students in a tangible message of solidarity. University Rector Frank M. “Rusty” Conner, who leads UVA’s Board of Visitors, said he wanted to support student efforts to “take back” the ground that white supremacists marched over last week.
“It is important to reclaim the Lawn from the evil that occurred here on Friday evening,” he said. “The Lawn is a place of liberty, equality, freedom and justice and we are going to restore that.”
Classics professor John Dillery agreed.
“The marchers last weekend stained our University and we had to do something to reclaim it,” he said. “We need to show that we as a community reject their values and to come together and affirm that to each other.”
For some in the crowd, the march – and the weekend’s violence – was their first experience of Charlottesville and the UVA community. King Adjei-Frimpong is an incoming first-year student at UVA’s Darden School of Business who just moved to Charlottesville from California.
“This is my first time living in the South and it’s been a bit of a shock,” he said. “As students, it is important to be a part of the community we are in, and coming out here lets me witness that community and be a part of Charlottesville as a whole… I have been told time and again that last weekend is not representative of Charlottesville, and coming out here tonight lets me see a representation of what Charlottesville really is.”
Those attending were well aware that the problems and questions so brutally exposed over the weekend cannot be healed by one event or gathering. However, many said they were ready to begin asking tough questions and working toward a better vision for their community.
“I think it is really important that everyone gets together, and that people start to recognize that the places that we say are so inclusive, spaces we think are so safe and so great are not necessarily always that way, for everyone,” said Marlon Evans, Adjei-Frimpong’s classmate at Darden and a UVA alumnus. “I have a lot of feelings right now, and I am happy to be a part of something positive, but I also have a lot of questions about how this could have happened.”
As Derrick Alridge, a professor in the Curry School of Education whose oral history project, “Teachers of the Movement,” records first-person accounts from educators involved in the Civil Rights Movement, put it: “What happened this past weekend in Charlottesville shows us that the struggle still continues. We still have a long way to go, but I am certain we will get there.”
Perhaps the most powerful expression of Alridge’s hope did not come from any one voice on Wednesday night, but from many.
As the event on the Lawn concluded, one spontaneous chant broke out over and over, more powerful than any chant the neo-Nazis and white supremacists could muster:
“Love wins. Love wins.”