Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, famously likened the prospect of abolishing slavery to the act of restraining a menacing animal. “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go,” he wrote. “Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”
Written in 1820, Jefferson’s statement implied that the republic he’d helped forge was in trouble. And that he—as a slave owner—was part of the problem. He knew slavery was immoral, that it violated natural law and corrupted the souls of those who participated in it, which was why “justice” demanded slavery’s abolition. But he also believed black Americans belonged to an internal enemy nation within the United States; a nation that harboured understandable grievances against white Americans like him who had kept them enslaved. Jefferson knew slavery would have to end one day. But dismantling it, he believed, could prove violent.
At the time, he was remarking on a contentious debate over Missouri’s admission into the union as a slave state. Legislators from free states such as New York and Massachusetts feared the admission would disrupt the delicate balance of power in Congress between states where slavery was legal and those where it was banned. In what became known as the “Missouri Compromise,” Missouri entered the union as a slave state while Maine entered as a free state. But the crisis, which Jefferson referred to as “a fire bell in the night,” proved just one of many critical moments in the lead-up to the Civil War: it helped reveal the extent to which the country was polarized over the issue of slavery.
Jefferson didn’t live to see the American Civil War break out in 1861 between Union and Confederate forces. And he was wrong about a lot of things—including the beliefs that Africans were inherently inferior to Europeans or emancipated slaves couldn’t be loyal citizens. But Jefferson correctly sensed that a republic that espouses liberty on the one hand but was built on the exploitation of enslaved Africans and African Americans on the other—what historian Edmund Morgan called “the American paradox”—would forever be at war with itself. And, nearly two centuries later and more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War in 1865, this continues to be true. Last August, the deadly events of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—Jefferson’s hometown—served as one more reminder that in many ways the American Civil War is still being fought.
The rally began as a protest against the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Organizers claimed that removing the statue would erase the contributions of a key figure in American history. But the nature of the rally became clearer when it drew protesters from the alt-right, a white supremacist movement. Counterprotesters gathered in opposition. The resulting clash and the ongoing debate about this and other controversial statues confirm a disturbing truth: despite the emancipation of enslaved peoples and the surrender of the Confederate army in the Civil War, despite the progress of the civil rights movement, and even despite the election of the country’s first black president, the nation has still not found peace. As historian Barbara Fields posited in Ken Burns’s legendary documentary about the Civil War, the conflict—which is about the very essence of the United States and everything the nation purports to be—shouldn’t be referred to in the past tense. “It’s still to be fought,” she said, “and, regrettably, it can still be lost.”
I was in Charlottesville at the time of the Unite the Right rally, studying and teaching American history at the University of Virginia (UVA). I’d just returned home after spending part of the summer in Canada. Like many residents, I didn’t anticipate the scope of the event, which followed in the wake of the May 13 and July 8 rallies and would eventually be seen as a defining moment in the modern white supremacist movement.
In the lead-up to the August rally, some groups began preparing a counterprotest. When the city attempted to move the rally to a park outside the downtown core, citing safety concerns, rally organizer and UVA graduate Jason Kessler argued that the relocation would violate his freedom of speech. The Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union supported his charge. On Friday, August 11, the day before the scheduled rally, a judge ruled in Kessler’s favour.
That evening, I was at home following the news on television and Twitter. White supremacists marched on UVA’s campus, roughly 250 of them, according to the Washington Post, flaming tiki torches in hand, at one point chanting, “White Lives Matter.” Led by white nationalist Richard Spencer—also a UVA grad—they congregated at a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the university’s founder, near the steps of the Rotunda, part of a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site designed by Jefferson and built by slaves. There, they encountered members of the UVA community, predominantly students, standing with a banner reading, “VA Students Against White Supremacy.”
Photos of the night are striking—in many of them, students are surrounded by a sea of protesters, torches in hand. I later learned that some confrontations had turned violent. Sources also told the Chronicle of Higher Education that one counterprotester may have suffered a stroke on account of his injuries. Police eventually showed up to disperse the crowd. A Vice documentary about the rallies shows a counterprotester telling police they were too late to prevent the violence. “Just be ready for tomorrow, at least,” he urges.
The next morning was hot and humid, as are most summer days in central Virginia. It was the kind of day where you lament the fact you’re inland, far from a body of water that might capture a semblance of a breeze. Local businesses were urged to shut down for the day. That afternoon, a helicopter began circling over the city to monitor events from above. It would crash later that day, killing the two pilots. (The reason for the crash has yet to be released.)
Unite the Right supporters had come in from all over the country; some even drove down from Canada. White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members descended on what was then called Emancipation Park in the downtown core. Protesters congregated close to the Lee statue at first, but throngs of people eventually spilled into the streets.
Armed paramilitary groups patrolled the area. According to Alan Zimmerman, president of the Congregation Beth Israel, located a block away from the Lee statue, three men dressed in fatigues with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street from the synagogue as congregants prayed inside. At the service’s end, Zimmerman advised attendees to exit in groups out the back. Neo-Nazis with flags bearing swastikas paraded past, chanting anti-Semitic slurs.
Around 11:30 a.m., city police proclaimed the assembly unlawful due to violence. Soon, the governor called a state of emergency. But it was chaos for several hours. Daily Progress journalist Ryan Kelly snapped a Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph of a protester driving his car into counterprotesters on 4th Street, killing Heather Heyer, injuring thirty-five others, and traumatizing countless witnesses. Another haunting photo, taken by a witness, shows six white men assaulting DeAndre Harris, a young black man, with poles in a downtown parking garage. What one journalist titled “An Image of Revolutionary Fire” depicts a twenty-three-year-old black man named Corey Long shooting a homemade flame device as a Confederate flag is thrust toward him. According to the Daily Progress and Baltimore Sun newspapers, witnesses said Richard Preston, a self-identified KKK imperial wizard, fired a gun at Long, narrowly missing him. Both were eventually found guilty for their actions—Preston for firing a gun within 1,000 feet of a school and Long for disorderly conduct.
Images of the violent clashes on the eve of and during the Unite the Right rally have become a part of a historical record that includes iconic images of lynched black men hanging from trees and civil rights activists being attacked by sheriffs’ dogs. They’re the latest instalment in a long trajectory of visuals that reveal the continuity of white supremacy in America. A key difference now, however, is the volume of these images, which can be captured quickly using cellphone cameras and distributed even faster on social media.
After the rally, many Americans turned to US President Donald Trump to see how he would respond to the tragedy. He wavered, famously condemning the hatred and violence “on many sides. On many sides.” The next day, Jason Kessler tried to host a press conference outside Charlottesville City Hall, denouncing what he called an infringement on his right to freedom of speech and assembly. He was driven out by protesters and physically assaulted.
After a couple days, the chaos subsided. Eventually, the makeshift memorial to Heather Heyer was taken down; the piles of flowers had started to decompose in the hot sun. On August 22, the city council voted unanimously for black tarps to be placed over the statue of Robert E. Lee as well as a nearby one of Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, in an attempt to reflect the wishes of residents and honour Heyer’s death.
In many ways, the tarps were symbolic of how the city felt after the rally. The protests were over; the statues were no longer visible. But everyone knew both were still there—and that the issue at the heart of the rally was nowhere near a resolution.
Officially, the Civil War ended in 1865 when white Union and Confederate forces ceased fighting each other. But while the war resulted in the emancipation of some 4 million enslaved African Americans, something akin to racial slavery continued. The labour system of sharecropping—which in some states saw former slave owners employing black Americans to pick cotton—relied on a punitive system of debts, making it near-impossible for workers to make a profit or pack up and move elsewhere. Racial slavery continued to echo in prisons, where a disproportionate number of inmates have always been people of colour. This summer, archaeologists in Texas, for instance, uncovered the graves of ninety-five black prisoners forced into plantation labour as part of the convict lease system.
And although the battles were over, the violence never stopped. In a political backroom deal known as the Compromise of 1877, Democrats, who represented mainly white southerners and some white northerners, handed the presidency to the Republicans, who represented mainly northerners and black Americans, in exchange for the removal of the remaining federal troops from former Confederate states. This compromise allowed the federal government to turn a blind eye to the violence and the dismantling of black civil rights unfolding in the South. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has identified over 4,400 African Americans lynched from 1877 to 1950, including one man in Charlottesville. These were grisly public spectacles; white families would sometimes pack picnics to go and watch them happen. Federal authorities rarely intervened, betraying whatever hopes were left that the US government would use its power to enforce an emancipationist vision of the war, one that protected racial equality.
This chapter of American history—after the Civil War but before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, when the Ku Klux Klan was formed, Jim Crow legislation stripped black Americans of their civil rights, and Confederate statues were erected en masse—remains neglected in the American historical imagination. For decades, scholarship on it was minimal and historical monuments were limited. Attempts have been made to address this gap: earlier this year, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a monument to lynched and racially terrorized black Americans, opened to the public. The project was spearheaded by EJI founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer featured in the 2016 documentary 13th, which examines the link between racial slavery and the current American prison system.
It’s worth noting that claiming the Civil War is still being fought risks minimizing important changes in American law and society that deserve recognition and celebration. (It also, historian Caroline Janney points out, “lessens what we mean by ‘war.’”) Emancipation meant the end of legal chattel slavery. On an individual level, it also meant families who had been separated for decades by the domestic slave trade, which funnelled enslaved black Americans from eastern states such as Virginia to the depths of the Deep South, could reunite. Slowly, some families managed to find each other and rebuild their lives in ways few could have imagined even five years prior.
It soon became clear, however, they wouldn’t be welcomed as equal citizens. Ida B. Wells, born enslaved in 1862, went on to launch a career as an investigative journalist, co-own a newspaper, and become a leading figure in the campaign to end lynching. “The more I studied the situation,” she wrote in 1892 about lynching, “the more I was convinced that the Southerner had never gotten over his resentment that the Negro was no longer his plaything, his servant, and his source of income.”
In Wells’s day, Civil War veterans—on both sides—participated in parades and memorial ceremonies, and it was clear many had not given up on the Confederate cause. Today, there are those who still risk shedding blood over it. They speak to not just a single event but the ongoing clash between the two movements—one to assert white supremacy, the other to deny it.
A common refrain I’ve heard in many parts of the US—and one you might read in some history textbooks—is that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery; it was about the right of southern states to challenge the supposed overreach of President Abraham Lincoln’s federal government and secede from the union. Although Lincoln had promised not to interfere with slavery where it already existed, he campaigned on a platform to limit its expansion. Many southerners believed that such limitations spelled doom for their slave societies. The Civil War, then, was about the rights of states to secede, but it was specifically about their rights to allow slavery.
As Janney points out, the interpretation of the Civil War that focuses on states’ rights and secession is central to the “Lost Cause” mythology, a prevalent ideology in many parts of the US. She identifies six tenets of the Lost Cause mythology, including the insistence that secession was constitutional and the notion that slavery in the pre–Civil War South was a romanticized “benevolent institution.” Promoted by groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Lost Cause mythology also deifies Confederate generals, including Lee and Jackson. You can find examples of the Lost Cause mythology in landmark films in American cinema, from The Birth of a Nation (1915) to Gone with the Wind (1939).
A quick glance at the words of Confederate leaders shows that this idealized, selective understanding of slavery and its place in the Civil War is simply not true.
In an 1861 speech, Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens laid out the foundation of the Confederacy and its values by contrasting them against the rest of the union. Stephens recognized that some leaders, including Jefferson, understood that slavery would have to end, deeming it “wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” But Stephens alleged such ideas “were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of equality of races. This was an error.”
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea,” he continued, “its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon their great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” In other words, the very foundation of the Confederacy—the reason for its existence—was to promote slavery and white supremacy, as scholarship by notable historians including David Blight, Thavolia Glymph, and Stephanie McCurry highlights.
Today, there are still those who embrace Confederate values not in spite of the commitment to white supremacy but because of it. Jason Kessler, for instance, has publicly and proudly stated that Lincoln was a traitor and the country would be better off if the South had won the Civil War—and he has been applauded for stating so. In 2015, neo-Confederate white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine black worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. These actions point to a continuity that runs deep in American history, where some still believe the US should be a place where white supremacy reigns free.
In his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, David Blight, a professor at Yale University, portrays a post-war reunification between the North and the South that was rooted in white supremacy. Although chattel slavery was illegal and black men temporarily had the right to vote, the federal government was unable to legislate away the white supremacy that had underpinned slavery. Shocked by the scale of the war’s carnage, which left some 750,000 dead, many white Americans preferred to put the war—and the possibility of racial equality—behind them.
In order to bring the South back into the fold, America gradually moved away from what Blight calls the emancipationist vision of the war, which promoted racial equality. Blight’s book ends in 1915, but he sees many of the Civil War’s core issues as continuing into the present. In pieces published in The Atlantic (2015) and the Guardian (2017), he writes that the US has not reached a true reconciliation of the legacies of slavery. And in some ways, states that fought for the Confederate side never abandoned some of the values they defended in the war.
Joseph Thompson, a historian friend who was born and raised in Alabama, told me that the 2016 presidential election made it clear to him that the politics of white rage he’d seen in Alabama for years were now playing out at the national level. “America just woke up in Alabama,” he texted a friend the morning after the election.
In the week following the Unite the Right rally, city officials in Baltimore removed a statue of Roger B. Taney, a Supreme Court justice whose famous ruling in the 1857 Dred Scott case held that black Americans were not citizens of the US and thus could not petition for their freedom. Mitch Landrieu, then mayor of New Orleans and a rumoured Democratic presidential contender in 2020, promoted the removal of Confederate statues in his city. A plaque honouring Confederate president Jefferson Davis on a Hudson’s Bay storefront in downtown Montreal was removed in the days after the Unite the Right rally.
But the debate over Charlottesville’s statues remains stalled. For some time, the tarps covering the monuments symbolized the reactionary moment we lived in after August 12, 2017. Historians who had previously defended keeping the statues as “pedagogical tools” that taught us about the white communities that erected them, not the figures they commemorated, began to acknowledge that preserving the monuments was now out of the question. Two plaques honouring Confederate soldiers on UVA‘s campus, which also houses a Confederate cemetery, were successfully taken down—at 7 a.m. on a Sunday.
Some defenders of the Lee and Jackson statues maintained their protest and continue to do so today. For months after the rally, protesters returned to the statues to tear down the tarps. Over the past year, police have amped up efforts to keep the monuments hidden by adding extra patrols and installing plastic orange fencing and “No Trespassing” signs, making it possible to charge anyone who crosses the fence with trespassing. Since then, two men have been jailed on such charges.
A court challenge to the city followed, and in February 2018, a judge ruled that the tarps would have to come down because they violated the public’s right to view the statues. Some fear the potential for more civil unrest and violence if the city removes the statues. (The decision is currently stalled in court.)
In the meantime, the city has been embroiled in controversy surrounding the names of the parks in which the statues stand. In June 2017, the city had renamed Lee Park, where the Robert E. Lee statue stands, to Emancipation Park, and Jackson Park, which is home to the Stonewall Jackson statue, to Justice Park. But a recent petition submitted to city council called the renaming “insulting” due to the stark juxtaposition with the Confederate statues. (The city had ignored the results of a community survey in choosing the names.) “How can oppressed people heal, when they are constantly being reminded of the past, in an insensitive manner by the re-naming of a park ‘Emancipation Park!’” the petition read.
Councillors voted four to one in favour of renaming Emancipation Park to Market Street Park and Justice Park to Court Square Park. Wes Bellamy, the lone dissenter, was one of the two councillors who called for the initial vote to secure the removal of the Confederate statues. “When we choose neutral or easy names, it allows us not to deal with some of the issues we’ve had,” Bellamy told local newspaper the Daily Progress in July. “It doesn’t make us have to think critically about what’s going on,” he added. “But if that’s the will of the people, so be it.”
The results of the 2016 presidential election were a stark reminder that progress can move in reverse, and American history is replete with examples. The disenfranchisement of women in New Jersey in 1807, for instance. The backtracking on treaty promises made to countless Indigenous nations. Or the violent expulsion of black men from the political sphere during the rise of Jim Crow. And while it’s tempting to subscribe to a “Whiggish” notion of history, believing that civil rights progress with time, recent issues such as the debate over voter ID laws in North Carolina, where a federal court ruled that the proposed requirement targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision,” highlight the trouble with that belief.
There’s what you think might happen, then there’s what happens. History teaches us that we can never know for sure, which is why wise historians never make predictions. They know that sometimes things change quickly and sometimes change can’t come quick enough—a tension many historians have observed more keenly since November 2016.
Last year I wrote an essay in The Walrus about the role historians had to play in responding to the events in Charlottesville, noting that it’s one thing to understand something like the persistence of the Confederate legacy intellectually, but quite another to see it play out at the local and national levels. I knew then and I know now that the surprise I felt at the scale of violence in the city hinges on the fact that I grew up surrounded by white people. I can be shocked by the power of white supremacy in ways many others are not because they live in its shadow every day. In that vein, I found comedian Dave Chappelle’s post-election Saturday Night Live skit hilarious because in my case, and probably for many others, it was true. The skit contrasts white liberal shock at Trump’s victory with Chappelle and Chris Rock’s prediction that Trump might win. “Oh my God, I think America is racist,” one white woman, glass of white wine in hand, says. “You know, I remember my great-grandfather told me something like that,” Chappelle says. “But he was, like, a slave.”
This type of reaction is echoed in the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who until recently was a national correspondent for The Atlantic and who regularly situates his understanding of contemporary America in the Civil War and slavery. He, too, wasn’t surprised by the Unite the Right rally, nor by Trump’s comments about it. Speaking on the podcast Radio Atlantic on August 17 last year, one week after the rally, Coates connected the events to the Civil War, the Confederacy, the valorization of Robert E. Lee, and the backlash to America’s first black president. “No,” he told podcast hosts Jeffrey Goldberg, Matt Thompson, and Alex Wagner, “I don’t think any of this is surprising at all.”
It shouldn’t be surprising either that Kessler plans to host an anniversary “white civil rights rally,” this time in Washington, DC, right across from the White House. Kessler turned to DC after Charlottesville denied his request for a permit to hold a rally there. Many Charlottesville residents remain on edge.
“Reality is not a function of the event as event, but of the relationship of that event to past, and future, events,” wrote Southern literary figure Robert Penn Warren in his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about southern populism, All the King’s Men (1946). Warren’s quote is a gift to historians—it captures how much history and historical context matter in our understanding of the present. The question is how far back in time that context stretches. There is no doubt that the Unite the Right rally was an important moment in 2017. It was an important moment in the Trump presidency. And it was an important moment in the backlash to the presidency of Barack Obama and movements such as Black Lives Matter. But it is also a critical moment in the now centuries-long struggle over the soul of America. To say the rally was about statues, Trump, or even Obama is akin to the notion that the Civil War was about states’ rights. Both elide a deeper, darker truth that is critical to understanding this “post-truth” world we all live in—and the history that created it.