by Carlton E. Smith
Special to The New Tri-State Defender
Editor’s Note: When TSD staffer Lee Eric Smith learned that his older brother Carlton was in Charlottesville, Va. to take a stand against racism, he did two things: First, Lee checked to make sure Carlton was safe. Then he asked Carlton to tell his story of a racially charged, violent and ultimately deadly weekend. Here is his report.
Those of us who came to counter the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last weekend received a jarring message after Saturday morning’s sunrise service featuring Dr. Cornell West: Our participation in nonviolent protest surrounded by white nationalists and neo-Nazis could mean severe injury, including death.
There, in the historic sanctuary of First Baptist Church, we each had to reckon with the level of our commitment to the cause of countering white supremacy in the city park where Robert E. Lee’s statue stands. It serves as a perpetual reminder of the brutal dominance of white people — especially white men — that black folks and other people of color in the South have endured over many generations.
I had been in Virginia the whole week, as one of the facilitators of a congregational leadership development program sponsored by my denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association. By the time we became aware that the Unite the Right rally was happening, my colleagues had already booked their return travel.
I had not, as it turned out, so I could easily rent a car and drive from Wirtz, Virginia, up to Charlottesville after our event was over Friday. Our newly-elected denominational president, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, was coming down from our national headquarters in Boston, and I would support her participation as well.
After I picked Rev. Susan up from the Charlottesville Airport, we went directly to a nonviolent civil disobedience/direct action training at a local congregation. That evening, we took part in an interfaith prayer service at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, not far from the McGuffey Park, where the white nationalists were gathering by the hundreds with tiki torches ablaze.
As the prayer service was breaking, organizers prevented us from exiting the building, as many of those flame-bearing men stood in front of it, waiting to terrorize those of us who had been in worship and fellowship just before. After about 20 minutes, we left via the side doors of the church rather than the front, where those men had been.
Our messages had been strong and clear: We were there to counter white supremacy and white nationalism with the power of love. We could no longer afford to be pitted against each other because of religion, nation of origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or any other difference that could be used to exclude others.
Many nonviolent protestors chose to participate in a rally at another park, far away from Saturday’s Unite the Right gathering. The numbers of people ready to take on all the risks associated with walking into a throng of angry racist white men continued to dwindle from hundreds who had been trained during the preceding week to a few dozen by the time we stepped off from First Baptist Church.
We walked through the neighborhood that had been Vinegar Hill, which one of the organizers told us had been a prosperous Black community that was decimated by ‘urban removal’ years ago, now a shopping and entertainment district.
I linked arms with Dr. Cornell West on my left and another colleague on my right. Both had spoken eloquently the night before at the rally. I’d had dinner with Dr. West the night before, and he was very kind and generous. One man in the neighborhood shouted that we were wasting our time, taking our stand. Others thanked us for showing up.
Some white nationalists had already arrived Saturday, with their wooden swords and shields and flags. Many more joined them as we stood in a single line on the edge of the park, facing the statue of Robert E. Lee.
We knelt and prayed silently. We sang songs of freedom and justice: ‘Over my head, I hear justice in the air / There must be a God somewhere’ and ‘This little light of mine / I’m gonna let it shine’ among others. We chanted and clapped, ‘We have – we have – we have already won!’
We watched as the white nationalist men paraded by us, some shouting taunts and insults. The police were at a distance. And the guns and rifles we saw were being carried by the dozens of militia supremacists, presumably ‘on duty’ to ‘keep the peace.’
Our group’s action escalated. We went to stand on the steps that were the direct access to the park each of the white supremacist groups was using as they arrived. We were going to block their access. By that time, we were down to 20 or so people with arms locked.
The next white supremacist group came, and to my right, our line broke. The group recommitted to holding the line, and our numbers got even smaller. We agreed to disperse as things turned violent.
Then the next group was on its way down the street, headed into the park. There were more of them than the last contingent. About fifty yards from where we stood, a group of anti-fascist anarchists who had arrived 30 minutes earlier walked right into the procession of that most recent group. A mass fight quickly erupted, and we clergy dashed away from the fight, toward the coffee shop where we agreed to meet. Some stayed behind longer to minister to other protestors.
I was among those watching CNN in the coffee shop later as the violence escalated. Rev. Susan and I needed to prepare for being part of a worship service at a local congregation the next day, so we left the group.
As we were in our rental car, we saw our fellow clergy pouring out of the coffee shop, running in the direction of the park. Ambulances were blaring. It wasn’t until Rev. Susan found the a live feed from the scene that we heard what had happened — a car had plowed into the anti-fascists, injuring many and killing Heather Heyer. We continued away from the scene, believing it best to make room for the medics and emergency workers to tend to the needs of the wounded.
I’m still processing my experience in Charlottesville, and will be for a long time. Clearly we have some challenging times ahead. I continue to believe in the power of love to overcome oppression, and the difference we can make when we come together as people committed to justice and peace.
Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister. He currently serves the Unitarian Universalist Association as a member of its Southern Region staff, working with congregations on organizational transitions, leadership development, community building and social justice. He is also a registered Democratic candidate for Mississippi’s First Congressional District in the 2018 election. He lives in Holly Springs.