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Four Years Later, Northam, Biden Reflect on Violence in Charlottesville

August 12, 2021 by Dan McCue
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., inspects a makeshift memorial to Heather Heyer at the site of her death. (Office of Senator Time Kaine)

Four years after a White supremacist rally left three people dead in the home city of Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam says there’s “still much work to do” when it comes to healing, fairness and justice in America.

The Unite the Right rally took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 11 and 12, drawing hundreds of self-identified members of the alt-right, neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, White nationalists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and various right-wing militias to the city of 47,000 people.

By the time it was over, then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe had declared a state of emergency, and 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was peacefully protesting the rally, was dead, having been run down by James Alex Fields, Jr. who deliberately drove his car into a crowd.

Also killed during the protest were 48-year-old state policeman Lt. H. Jay Cullen and 40-year-old trooper-pilot Berke M.M. Bates, whose helicopter crashed while monitoring the unfolding event.

The rally and his response to it forever marked Donald Trump’s presidency, drawing battle lines between his supporters and detractors that continue to endure in the nation’s capital and across the country.

In his initial statement, Trump condemned “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides,” but then went on to refer to “very fine people on both sides.”

Critics saw his remarks as implying a moral equivalence between the White supremacist marchers and those who protested against them. Supporters maintain Trump haters wrongly ignored his initial condemnation of what had occurred.

On Thursday, Northam said it remains important to pause to honor those who died during the rally, “and all of the lives forever changed that day.”

“Sadly, White nationalist violence has increased since then, and we continue to grapple with the realities and impacts of systemic racism—even as some pretend it does not exist,” the governor said.

“These past four years have also seen great progress. Across the Commonwealth, monuments to White supremacy have come down—including in Charlottesville just last month. Protests for racial justice continue to lead to real and lasting change,” Northam continued.

“These are reasons for hope. There are more people who want justice and healing, fairness and equality, than those who want to hide history and promote hate,” he added. “We have much work to do, and I have faith that we have the will to ensure that hate has no home in Virginia.” 

President Biden also marked the fourth anniversary of the Charlottesville rally, calling it “the most lethal terrorist threat to our homeland in recent years.”

“We must acknowledge what America’s intelligence community has already confirmed, and what Charlottesville and so many other communities know all too well: the most lethal terrorist threat to our homeland in recent years has been domestic terrorism rooted in white supremacy,” Biden said in a statement issued by the White House Thursday afternoon. “We cannot ignore it. We must confront the spread of hate-fueled violence in every form.”

Biden also connected the Charlottesville attack to the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, describing both as “shameful chapters in our history” and reminders that the nation has more work to do to counteract hatred.

“What happened in Charlottesville – and securing the promise of America for every American – motivated me to run for president and now motivates my Administration’s work to ensure that hate has no safe harbor in America,” Biden said.

Last month, the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a fund established by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the wake of the “Unite the Right” rally, announced it would award $3 million in grants to more than three dozen groups and sites nationwide to help preserve landmarks linked to Black history.

Recipients of money include a consortium of civil rights sites and Black churches in Alabama; work to establish an African American heritage trail in Colorado; and preservation of the church where Emmett Till’s funeral was held in Chicago after his lynching in Mississippi in 1955.

Other grants announced Thursday include money to hire a director for Save Harlem Now!, a historic preservation effort in New York; repairs to the African American Museum and Library in Oakland, California; and research on enslaved people at Hacienda La Esperanza in Puerto Rico.

Grants ranging from $50,000 to $150,000 will go to recipients representing centuries of Black experience and help tell the full story of U.S. history, said Brent Leggs, executive director of the fund, in a written statement. 

The nation should “value the link between architecture and racial justice,” Leggs said.

“I think it is critically important to acknowledge that the nation may be rich in diverse history but it has often done a poor job in representing that history,” he said.

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