Racial justice

The Confederacy, Charlottesville, and California

by Erin Burns, Marketing and Communications Director


“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” -William Faulkner

For two years, I lived in a town that considered itself a safe, progressive haven. Nestled in wine country, it is home to a world-class university, charming residents, an incredible food scene, and enviable weather.

Charlottesville, Virginia is Berkeley’s Southern cousin. In recent months, white supremacist violence has rocked both quiet college towns. A chorus of white voices now asks, How could this happen?

Race is inextricable from the history of Charlottesville, like all American spaces. When I joined an historical tour of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s palatial estate about 30 minutes outside Charlottesville, an incredulous white woman asked, “But Jefferson wasn’t a bad slave owner, was he?” Jefferson, who founded the University of Virginia, who declared that all men are created equal, owned six hundred human beings over the course of his lifetime, including some of his own children.

Decades before the Civil War, Jefferson predicted that the roiling tensions over slavery threatened American unity. Decades after the Civil War, the South defiantly erected monuments to Confederate heroes, at the height of Klan activity during early 1900s and during the backlash to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Who we choose to glorify speaks volumes about our values. In the case of Confederate monuments, we white Southerners have enshrined intimidation and violence. We have, quite literally, placed racism on a pedestal.

The history of Jefferson, the Confederacy, and this weekend’s racist violence in Charlottesville is not only American history. It is the American present.

Every Sunday, a smattering of Confederate flag bumper stickers may be found in the parking lots of Southern churches. But the cross cannot coexist with the stars and bars. One is a symbol of love, the other is a symbol of degradation and racism. Uprooting Confederate monuments will not uproot hate itself, but it will chip away at an unholy incarnation of white supremacy.

I do not want to erase history — far from it. I want us to question and probe our history, including the deep wounds of racism and the ways in which white supremacy continues to warp our schools, our workplaces, our worship, our politics, and our neighborhoods, and our interactions with one another. And, if we are entrenched in our history, let us find hope there. Bayard Rustin, Oscar Romero, Ella Baker, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and all whose defied state-sanctioned violence have paved a path of love and faith for us to follow. Resisting hate has always been a sacred call.