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Williams: 5 years after the Charlottesville march, the war against white supremacy is still up in the air

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America, when it comes to the sins of its history, has lacked a "never again" moment.

Five years ago, white supremacists descended upon Charlottesville, Va., to oppose that city's attempt to remove Confederate statues. But anyone who witnessed the torch-carrying marchers chanting "Jews will not replace us!" had to realize that the so-called Unite the Right march was about more than monuments.

Today, the political right is united in its extremism, barely distinguishable from hate groups. "The Great Replacement" — a conspiracy theory that nonwhite people are being brought to America to "replace" and disempower white people — has become the common fodder of Tucker Carlson, the most popular cable news show host in the nation.

Events in Charlottesville on Aug. 11-12, 2017 — culminating with a neo-Nazi plowing his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer — should have been a "never again" moment.

Torches at the Rotunda

Members of the so-called alt-right led a torch march through the University of Virginia campus on Aug. 11, the night before the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

A broad swath of America has embraced creeping fascism and autocracy in a manner that would bring a knowing smile to Adolf Hitler. 

“The Civil War is still going on. It's still to be fought, and regrettably it can still be lost,” historian Barbara Fields said in Ken Burns' documentary "The Civil War."

We are perilously close to losing what might be described as a war over memory.

Since June, I have been the co-host of a five-part podcast, "Memory Wars," on how Germany society confronted its sins after an incomprehensible atrocity. Radio IQ reporter Mallory Noe-Payne spent a year in Germany doing research and interviews that she hoped might provide a blueprint for how we might tackle the legacy of our painful past in the former capitol of the Confederacy.

Remembrance, we concluded, was essential to this task in a city where Lost Cause monuments lionized 19th century insurgents while one of the largest burial grounds for free and enslaved Black people was erased from a landscape now occupied by an abandoned gas station.

I'd always assumed that this sort of erasure happened out of our avoidance of our uncomfortable history. But the dearth of remembrance runs deeper than America's unwillingness to confront its own past.

In 2020, a 50-state survey on Holocaust knowledge among Millennials and Gen Z showed "a worrying lack of basic Holocaust knowledge," according to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

According to its survey, 63% of respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered and 36% thought that “2 million or fewer Jews” were killed during the Holocaust. Additionally, 48% of the respondents could not name a single one of the more than 40,000 camps and ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust.

At times, we appear to be literally blind to this history. Take Hanover County Public Schools.

The school district, as part of its Unified Professional Learning conference last week, distributed T-shirts with a logo that immediately brought to mind a swastika to nearly everyone who glanced at it.

The school district apologized amid staff and public outrage and said it would stop distribution of the shirts, which Superintendent Michael Gill said were designed by a teacher. But the context leading up to the T-shirts had to be unnerving to the district's Jewish employees, who must already feel under duress from a school board majority whose recent actions evince demonstrable Christian bias — whether it's a new member vowing to approach curriculum and policy with a "biblical worldview" or the board taking legal advice from a faith-based anti-LGBTQ outfit.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League reports that Virginia had the nation’s second-highest number of incidents involving white supremacist propaganda last year, and a 27% rise in anti-Semitic messaging.

“Charlottesville definitely set off a pattern, so it is possible that hate has just continued to have a stronger presence since the Unite the Right rally,” ADL regional director Meredith Weisel told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

Just as the Confederate States of America lost the Civil War but "won the peace" with effective Lost Cause propaganda, the KKK members, Nazis and other hatemongers in Charlottesville lost the battle over Confederate monuments in Charlottesville but could win their ideological war.  

This is not a past we can "move on" from. This history not only informs our present, but threatens our future as a multiracial and pluralistic democracy.

Charlottesville must not become shorthand for the resurgence of hate, but rather, the emergence of a resolve to repair centuries-old wounds. The war of memory cannot be lost.


Michael Paul Williams is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va.; read more of his columns on Richmond.com.

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