Remembering Charlottesville

Clergy line at Charlottesville demonstration 2017

By Carlton Elliott Smith

On August 12, we will mark one year since the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when hundreds of white supremacists gathered in Emancipation Park around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. That day, Heather Heyer lost her life when one supremacist plowed his car into her and other counter-protesters in an act of vehicular homicide.

I was there that day, in my role as a member of your UUA Congregational Life Staff for the Southern Region, along with our President, Rev. Susan Frederick Gray. She and I, along with Christina Rivera, Administrator at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church of Charlottesville, Rev. Jeanne Pupke of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, Dr. Cornel West of Princeton University, and several other laypeople and clergy answered the call of Congregate C'ville, to engage in an interfaith counter-protest. We prayed and sang together the night before, and the morning of the Unite the Right Rally. Knowing we were at risk of being killed, several of us still made our way onto the streets. (Read UU World's original coverage of the event here.)

We processed from the historic First Baptist Church West Main Street toward the park, linking arms as we got closer. Dr. Cornell West was to my left and activist-author Lisa Sharon Harper was on my right. Rev. Susan was a few steps away, to the left of Congregate C’ville organizers Brittany Caine-Conley and Rev. Seth Wispelwey. Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, whom I knew from Black Lives Matter and Black Lives of UU work in our UUA, was to Lisa’s right, and we were all among the frontline of the interfaith counter-protest. Rev. Sekou was the principal trainer and coordinator that weekend.

Our action was intended to be a matter of civil disobedience. We had prepared for an encounter with the police, ending in our arrest for blocking access of the white supremacists into the park. It was the case that the police were very much on the edges of the blocked-off streets, not anywhere near where our lives were at risk. It was only after that weekend that I understood those officers were under no obligation to protect us at all.

Rather than facing the police, we made it all the way to the park, facing the statue of General Lee on his horse. Ten feet in front of us stood a handful of heavily-armed supremacists militiamen, assault rifles ready. It was there that we knelt and prayed, and rose and sang. We were jeered and taunted by the waves of arriving clans. We escalated the action when we went and stood on the steps the clans used to enter the park. We had agreed to hold the line, forcing an arriving group to struggle against us, but the line broke when the next group pushed through. We set ourselves to hold the line again, when a melee broke out between the following wave of supremacists and the anti-fascist protestors who had been on the street most of the morning as well. As we had agreed, those of us in the clergy counter-protest disbursed and retreated to a nearby coffeeshop.

We caught our breath. We affirmed what we had done together. Some were already planning to go back out on the street. Rev. Susan and I were in a rental car pulling away from the coffeeshop when our colleagues came flooding out of it, running in the direction of the park. Rev. Susan checked her phone to see a live feed coming from the rally. That was the moment when that driver killed Heather and injured many others. We continued to pull away, trusting that we were making room for emergency personnel to tend to the wounded.

I look back with gratitude for the leadership provided by so many that weekend. I mourn the loss of Heather’s life, and the harm that came to other victims that day. I remember my dawning awareness of pathological fear and anxiety that drove those white men (there were very few women among them) to act out in such hateful ways.

So much has happened in the past 12 months — the #metoo movement, the Parkland, Florida massacre and the March for Our Lives, the separation of immigrant children from their parents, the deepening web of corruption regarding our 2016 elections, among many other events.

We still find ways to “keep love alive”, in the words of my Southern Region colleague Kathy McGowan. Next week, my UU minister colleague Rev. Fred Wooden may become a party’s candidate to represent Michigan in Congress, further amplifying our values. Unitarian Universalist across the country engaged in the March for Our Lives in support of gun safety for all of us. Levi Draheim a ten year old UU Floridian, is among the plaintiffs suing the U.S. government for its part in accelerating climate change. And Rev. Susan will be among those at the Flood the Desert action in the Southwest.

Neither Rev. Susan nor Rev. Sekou nor I will be in Charlottesville next weekend. All the same, we continue in numerous ways to imagine and embody new ways of being, as we place human relationship at the center of our faith. We are a faith of more than thoughts and prayers. We are a faith of deeds, in which our actions are our thoughts and prayers made visible.

The presence of UUA staff in Charlottesville and the many other places we show up for justice is only possible because of your faithfulness to our organization through the APF/GIFT Program. Thank you for your ongoing commitment to our UUA that brings a brighter tomorrow ever closer within our reach.

We act, we resist, we protest … but let us also take time to laugh, to play, to appreciate the blessings of each day. The challenges we face will not be resolved in our lifetimes. Hopefully we can bend the arc of the universe a bit more towards justice, so that the generations that follow us have strength and courage, as we have that which was given to us by our ancestors.

In faith,


About the Author

Carlton Elliott Smith

Rev. Carlton E. Smith is the Regional Lead for the Pacific Western Region. From 2013 to 2020, he was a member of the UUA Congregational Life Staff Group serving in the Southern Region....

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