Sadly Saturday saw another name inscribed on the list of civil rights martyrs when James Alex Fields accelerated his car into a crowd of protestors. Heather Heyer, a local paralegal who had a history of supporting initiatives on behalf of minorities, was killed and others injured. The murder took place in Thomas Jefferson’s hometown where efforts to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee were underway. The Charlottesville city council had followed New Orleans’ lead and voted to take down the monument to the Confederacy’s leading general.
A coalition of arch-conservatives itching for a fight descended on the Virginia college town in an effort to keep the mounted General Lee on his pedestal. Ironically the taking of Heather Heyer’s life by one of the reactionary disciples will probably do more to expedite the removal of the hundreds of monuments honoring Confederate heroes that dot the South than anything else could have.
The killing of Ms. Heyer will probably have an impact similar to white supremacist Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage in the basement of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church where he killed nine worshipers at a Bible study. Through his actions, Mr. Roof, who wanted to demonstrate his support for the ideals of the Confederacy and posed with a Confederate flag, spurred Governor Nikki Haley to end the prolonged debate and remove the Civil War banner from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol. Roof’s actions also sparked new conversations about Confederate iconography which have taken place in numerous communities including Charlottesville.
Mr. Roof’s behavior was not the first time that a despicable act brought change. The violent attack launched by members of the Alabama state highway patrol on the peaceful marchers led by John Lewis across Selma’s Edmund Pettis Bridge shook a lethargic U.S. Congress into action and secured the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Earlier, Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor’s use of fire hoses and snarling dogs on peaceful protestors had expedited enactment of the sweeping 1964 Civil Rights Act. America’s initial efforts to protect the right to secure housing free of discrimination would have been delayed probably for years but the assassination of Martin Luther King.
By the time of his death, Reverend King was increasingly criticized by younger civil rights activists for not being more aggressive. But time and again his message that peaceful protest could bring about a dramatic change in public policy even over entrenched opposition has been proven correct.
Much harder to overcome than violent protesters were the arguments of legislators like Senators Richard Russell (D-GA) and Sam Erwin (D-NC). These leaders of the southern cause in Congress based their opposition to civil rights legislation on constitutional arguments and historical precedent. They carefully refrained from racial invective even at a time when it more frequently found its way into public discourse.
The dramatic change in American race relations has occurred over the last 60 years – changes that many vowed would never come to pass. Unfortunately, the prelude to change has often been, and still remains, violence. While the loss of life and injuries cannot be celebrated, tragedies like that witnessed over the weekend in Charlottesville have often expedited the movement of public policy along the rocky and twisting path to a more inclusive and just society.