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Since Trump's inauguration — during which he reaffirmed his chilling loyalty to the "forgotten men and women of our country" — Neo Nazis, Klan members, and white nationalists no longer live just in the dark corners of the Internet. Hate groups have become an increasingly visible element of everyday life for many Americans, and they report being emboldened by the President's incendiary retweets of anti-Muslim conspiracy videos and his refusal to unequivocally condemn racially-motivated violence. The escalating dangers faced by outraged protestors, and especially people of color, were on full display in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past summer.
Dr. Wes Bellamy, Charlottesville's Vice-Mayor, has been keeping the city's resistance alive in the wake of August's explosive "Unite The Right" rally — a terrifying display of racial hatred and unabashed bigotry aimed at challenging the removal of several Civil War statues from local parks. On Saturday, August 12th, the clash turned suddenly tragic, ending in the deaths of two Virginia police officers and Heather Heyer, a 32 year-old counter-protester.
Those harrowing images of tiki torch-wielding white nationalists are forcing us to reckon with the legacies of injustice that've always been part of the American story, but the headlines haven't survived the news cycle: Conversations about the future of Civil War statues haven't been constantly in the our feeds in recent months. But for Bellamy — and the many Virginia citizens forced to grapple every day with the overt racism enshrined by the statues — the specter of the Old South is never very far away.
"Those statues weren't put up just following the Civil War. They were put up 70 years afterwards," Bellamy says. "The statues in Charlottesville were erected in 1924. During Jim Crow, the authorities wanted to send a very clear message — the supremacy of one group of people over another. And we can't be a welcoming, progressive city with 20 foot statues glorifying the Confederacy leaning over us."
While Bellamy's fight to clear the statues from his city has stalled due to new legislative roadblocks, he's working to spur a wider dialogue. "The Civil War is embedded throughout the South. You have schools all over named after Robert E. Lee., and plenty of buildings are named after Confederate Generals. The stories of people of color who have sacrificed are never memorialized the same way."
Bellamy's charge to remove the statues isn't just symbolic. The tenacity of American racism, mobilized under the Trump administration, remains the painful inheritance of its citizens of color. "You see many of the laws and policies that have been put in place by white supremacists — those are still on the books. You look at the wealth disparity, the education gaps, economic stagnation, and it all has a great deal to do with the Old South. I'm not going to site idly by. I still have a duty to fight."
After August's events, the Charlottesville City Counsel unanimously voted to remove the Robert E. Lee and Andrew Jackson statues. Today, they remain standing, but covered — a ghostly reminder of the veiled ways the Confederacy quietly endures. Still, Bellamy hasn't lost hope of using his city's energy and lingering heartbreak to build a more inclusive, empathetic South. "The people have very clearly shown that we will win, and justice always bends toward progression. They've very clearly shown that even thought the White Supremacists are loud, we are greater than number and we are willing to stand up. In the end, kindness and love always win."