Seeing Charlottesville’s violence from a mountain of love

Published 12:45 pm Saturday, August 19, 2017

by John Railey

I’m betting our future on a young couple that came together on a mountain of love high above the hell that was Charlottesville last weekend.

Domestic terrorism had scarred Charlottesville by the time my nephew and his beautiful bride prepared to say their wedding vows. The violent white supremacists I saw up close before the wedding made me so mad that I wanted to give up and write this column about hating the fascists back.

Writing about love is harder. But thinking about our family’s newest couple made it a little easier. They are brilliant, compassionate lawyers who stand against bigotry every day in their own quiet way with their love and their diverse and close friends.

Charlottesville is sacred ground for them, both recent graduates of the University of Virginia School of Law. My nephew’s grandfather, my father, graduated from Virginia Law on the G.I. Bill after fighting in the Big War, helping to keep our country free. He and my mom started their married life living in Charlottesville while he was in law school. I spent my first year of college at Virginia.

As soon as we got to Charlottesville last weekend, a few of us went by the university cemetery where Dad’s ashes are held in a columbarium wall. We shared Corona Lights, his favorite, and said a few words to him.

We wandered Charlottesville’s cozy “Corner” of downtown shops, restaurants and bars. It was a Friday and the Klan crazies were rolling in. The locals were tense, with good reason.

By the time we got back to our hotel after the rehearsal dinner and after-party, CNN was flashing deathly images of home-grown Nazis marching with torches in front of the Rotunda, one of the school’s iconic buildings of brick designed by President Thomas Jefferson, the school’s founder. They were prepping for a bigger rally the next day.

I knew I had to see some of that the next day. It was even uglier up close than in the TV shots. The supremacists, many with shields and waving Nazi and Confederate flags, jackbooted their way down the normally peaceful streets like something out of Hitler’s Germany. An African-American counter-protester within a few feet of me got in a shouting match with one of the Nazis. The Nazi tried to pepper spray the black guy, who luckily jumped out of the way.

For the most part, the counter-protesters I saw, standing up to the out-of-town haters who’d invaded to pick a big fight for the big cameras, were peaceful, holding signs with words of love and peace.

I went back to the hotel. Getting ready for the wedding, I watched CNN report that a supremacist had plowed his car into a downtown crowd not far from where I’d been, killing one person and injuring many. The man in the White House came on the screen, starting his chilling reach-out to the white supremacists and his avoidance of calling what they did what it was: domestic terrorism.

Then I was on the mountain for the wedding, several miles outside Charlottesville. I thought about my nephew and the fine man he’d become. And I thought about another lawyer on another mountain not too far away in distance or time in a country that has yet to see its 300th birthday. I’ve long wrestled with Jefferson’s contradictions. The principal author of the great and living Declaration of Independence was also a slave owner who fathered children by one of his enslaved. Consent could not have entered the picture. His wrongs on his enslaved people and his work on the freedom we all enjoy today, including that of free speech, live on in the unresolved contradictions and tensions that erupted in Charlottesville.

I realized that my nephew and his bride knew a lot more about that than me. But they loved their time at UVA. And much more, they love each other. I think they still believe in the promise of America. My father never quit believing.

The wedding began. I watched the bridesmaids float out of a vineyard and take their places until finally the bride emerged, escorted by her smart, kind and proud father until she took her place by my nephew. I looked at the crowd, my cool daughter and husband and her cousins who’d suddenly grown up somehow. I looked at our new family. My nephew’s sister, one of the bridesmaids, smiled and cried all at once in her gentle and charming way.

The Episcopal priest, Chad, said some wonderful words about love conquering all. I held my wife’s hand tight, cried, and wanted to believe Chad’s words were true. It was dreamy up there in the clouds with the lovers and the hopeful, far above the haters and the hopeless.

The wedding was planned months in advance of the violence. But the fact that it came to fall on the same weekend of that violence was providential. It sent a message.

The violence in Charlottesville is not what my father fought for in the Big War and throughout his legal career. It’s not what he and my mother built our family of love on. And this is not the world our newest couple wants.

The supremacists promise to return to Charlottesville, and to rage in other towns across our land. They will not prevail. Love is harder to pull off than hate. But I’m betting on my family’s newest couple, as well as legions of other young couples built on love as mighty as theirs.

JOHN RAILEY,  who grew up in Courtland, is the editorial page editor of The Winston-Salem Journal, which published this column.