Charlottesville has become an ideological battleground for debates over free speech and political correctness. An upcoming KKK rally has community members worried. Here’s why.

In recent months, Charlottesville has become the center of some heated public debate about racism, freedom of speech, and the meaning of American history. The latest event in this ongoing debate is a KKK rally scheduled for Saturday, July 8, in Emancipation Park (formerly Robert E. Lee Park), where May protests by a white supremacist group gained national attention. Members of the community were shocked, and many joined counter protests to express their dissent. Now, the community is preparing itself for yet another white supremacist demonstration.

Charlottesville, quaintly called C-ville, is a city with a rich history — a college town full of educated, progressive, middle class families; yet, it’s also a town surrounded by rural countryside and Appalachian hamlets, many of which are full of white, working class Americans who feel that white progressive politics neglects to account for them. The 2016 election brought this sentiment to the forefront of public discourse, bringing with it white supremacist ideologies.

KKK rally

An image of the torch-wielding protestors from May’s demonstration. The figure of Robert E. Lee upon horseback looms in the torch light.

Emancipation Park has been the scene of such demonstrations because of its renaming; to white supremacists the removal of the Robert E. Lee Monument, and the renaming of the park, are an erasure of white culture. The national movement for political correctness — meaning the inclusion and protection of marginalized groups of people in social and political discourse — resulted in the call to remove of the monument. Confederate monuments across the country have faced similar fates, as the legacy of the Confederacy and of the Civil War is, inarguably, one tainted by the horrors of slavery, racism, and violence against black Americans.

Many argue that the removal of Confederate monuments disrespects the legacies of Confederate soldiers, many of whom were not white supremacists; yet, in the case of Robert E. Lee, he was a slave owner who marched thousands of Confederate soldiers to their deaths in the name of protecting the southern way of life — an existence defined by chattel slavery and indentured servitude.

Thus, the nation’s most notorious domestic terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan, will descend upon Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park to defend their noble, slave-holding idol, while simultaneously denying the racist context of Confederate monuments and all the while ignoring the fact that their presence proves the points of those who call for the monument’s removal.

UVA President, Religious Leaders Prepare

On June 28, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan sent an email to students and faculty of the university warning them to stay away from the KKK rally on July 8. Sullivan urged community members to “avoid the rally and avoid confrontation.” Sullivan said the university community condemns the group’s “detestable beliefs,” but also understands its right to free speech. In her call for public inaction, Sullivan said that “to listen and respond to these outsiders would only call more attention to their viewpoint and create the publicity that they crave.” She urged students and faculty to attend alternative events being planned in Charlottesville.

KKK Rally

Faith leaders in the community also gathered to discuss the appropriate response. The Charlottesville Collective Clergy held a community meeting at Mount Zion First African Baptist Church. More than 100 people attended, many of whom asked important questions about what to do. Some echoed discomfort with UVA president Sullivan’s suggestion of staying away, as it makes them feel as if they’ve done nothing to combat the disgraceful ideologies of the group; yet, the same people expressed hesitation over confronting the white supremacists face-to-face.

Elaine Thomas of St. Paul’s Memorial Church said,

In many ways some of these [white supremacist] groups spouting hate have tried to high-jack Christianity into saying that it’s supported by us. It is not. It is actually an abomination to the Christian faith and we are called to response as people of faith no matter what faith tradition we come from.”

A number of unity rallies are planned. First United Methodist Church in downtown will be open as a safe space during the July rally. Clergy will also escort people to their vehicles, if needed.

The question remains, how can citizens express their disgust with the July 8 KKK rally without potentially dangerous confrontations? Is inaction really the best way to react to the rally? And how long can Americans disagree about the meaning of their shared history?

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