Virginia interfaith clergy demonstrate in opposition to the KKK

By Richard Lord
Posted Jul 11, 2017
Anti-KKK march

The Rev. Elaine Thomas, associate rector of St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, leads the march from Safe Space at First United Methodist Church to the July 8 anti-Ku Klux Klan rally. Photo: Richard Lord

[Episcopal News Service – Charlottesville, Virginia] Over 1,000 counterdemonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, neutralized a rally of some 30 Ku Klux Klan members in Justice Park on July 8. The counterdemonstrators’ chanting, horn-blowing and screaming rendered the words of the Klan inaudible more than a couple of feet away. A newly formed interfaith group, the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, was among the leading organizers of the counter-demonstration.

The Klan staged a rally in Charlottesville, a university town of 50,000 people in Central Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, to protest the City Council’s February 2017, vote to remove statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from the city’s two biggest parks. Two-thousand more people attended unity and educational events just blocks from Justice Park.

A half hour after the rally ended, Virginia State Police tear-gassed a small group of protestors. Twenty-three people were arrested. Details of the incident had not been confirmed by Monday evening.

The Charlottesville Clergy Collective organized clergy to plan and execute a unified response to the Klan rally. The organization is open to all clergy and 30 have regularly attended weekly meetings since 2015. Three Episcopal congregations are represented. Among the steering committee members is the Rev. Elaine Thomas, associate rector of St. Paul’s Memorial Church, an Episcopal church that serves the University of Virginia community.

Protesters with anti-KKK signs.

Counter-demonstrators at the Ku Klux Klan rally in
Charlottesville, Virginia, on July 8. on Saturday. In the background is the statue of
Stonewall Jackson. Its relocation to a park outside the city’s center spurred the 30 members of the Klan to rally in protest. Photo: Richard Lord

“This is the body of Christ in action,” said Thomas, referring to the counter-demonstrators. “We need to get out of the pews and into the community. Injustice is never beaten by staying home.”

“My congregation has been extremely supportive of my efforts to protest against the Klan and white supremacists,” Thomas continued. “Activism is what they are all about.”

Thomas said that the anti-Klan activities have unified the city in its opposition, especially the activities of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective.

“The collective has given me the opportunity to increase my exposure to other faiths. And to other races as well as other ethnicities,” she said. “The churches do not agree on everything. But, through the collective, we have come together as a single body to deal effectively with this issue.”

The Charlottesville Clergy Collective was formed in 2015 in response to the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. It formed as a way for clergy to develop a response network to as a unified body, should a similar event occur in Charlottesville.

The Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, based in Pelham, North Carolina, has lost an estimated 80 percent of its membership since December 2016. The loss followed the arrest of its Imperial Wizard, Chris Barker, for stabbing another Klan member, according to Nate Thayer, a journalist who writes extensively about the KKK.

Home to the University of Virginia, Charlottesville is seen as a liberal bastion within the state. In the off-year June 2017 primaries for governor, lieutenant governor and other statewide and local offices, the city’s Democrats had the highest turnout of any party in any non-presidential election in Virginia history.

The Charlottesville area is steeped in history. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Madison’s Ash Lawn are a short drive from downtown Charlottesville. Two other presidential homes (James Monroe’s and Woodrow Wilson’s) are within a 45-minute drive.

The statute of Robert E. Lee became a focal point back in February with the City Council’s vote to move it from the city’s most prominent park to a park outside the city center. White supremacists were enraged and there was an attempt to get the city’s African-American vice major removed from office.

Reaction to the City Council’s vote drew national attention. Corey Stewart, a white supremacist candidate for Republican gubernatorial nomination from Northern Virginia, attempted to broadcast a Facebook Live presentation in front of the Lee statue. Counter-protesters forced him to cut the attempt short. The local press depicted the event that he had been “run out of town.”

Stewart returned a few weeks later with about 100 supporters who wore motorcycle gang jackets, one of whom was carrying an assault weapon and had his finger on the trigger during Stewart’s speech.

This led to the announcement in late May that the KKK had received a permit to rally in Charlottesville. The community rose to plan its reaction to the July 8 event.

Several organizations focused their efforts on counter-protesting. Some observed and made noise in the park. Others engaged in non-violent direct-action aimed to stop the rally.

“We need to protect our community from the terrorist Ku Klux Klan,” said Grace Aheron, an Episcopal chaplain and justice activist who is from Charlottesville and is affiliated with Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ.

For 45 minutes, SURJ members blocked the entrance to the park so that the Klan could not enter, said Aheron.

“It is because the city of Charlottesville has failed to protect us from the Klan that we have to do this,” she continued. “And we were successful. Not only in delaying the Klan, but in creating community awareness of what is happening.”

A rally of white supremacists has been scheduled for Aug.12 in Emancipation (formerly Robert E. Lee) Park, blocks from the Klan’s July 8 rally site. The city issued a permit for 400 people for the August rally, which is suspected to be much larger than the one on July 8.

– Richard Lord is a freelance photographer and writer based in Charlottesville, Virginia, and New York City.


Comments (4)

  1. Doug Desper says:

    Episcopal News Service sailed right past the 9th Commandment in asserting “Corey Stewart, a white supremacist candidate for Republican gubernatorial nomination…”. While Stewart is irritating, controversial, and blunt about Southern heritage that does not equate to his being a white supremacist. Notwithstanding, some of Stewart’s points are timely. Charlottesville’s liberal progressives are hauling away an R.E. Lee statue, and renaming the park designated in his honor. (That’s what brought the truly racist KKK out from under the rocks….and they ARE rejected by people who value Southern heritage).
    But about R.E. Lee: that statue and park in Charlottesville came to be because of Lee’s character. In his time Lee was without blemish at West Point, a stellar officer, and a fine leader. President Lincoln thought so too, and wanted Lee to lead newly trained troops to quash the citizen uprisings in the South at the beginning of the Civil War. Lee was looked on as his time’s George Washington because of his character and because his wife was a direct descendant of that family. Because of this character Lee turned down President Lincoln’s military plans which included him and he resigned as an officer and went home to Virginia. Lee DID NOT favor slavery and sought for a decent conclusion – doing so by planning to free his wife’s slaves when it was against the law to do so. While Lee is accused of defending slavery because he joined the Confederacy it should be understood that people of his time had many great moral wrongs to walk through and solve of which slavery was one. For Lee, the greatest moral wrong demanding his immediate resolution was President Lincoln’s arming of over 75,000 poorly trained United States federal troops and turning them loose with dictatorial power. People in the North and South saw this as blatant thuggery which would deepen the secession crisis – and it did. Union General George McClellan slow-walked his Union command, avoiding battles in the hopes that cooler heads would solve the crisis without clashing with local populations. Was he a racist for choosing to avoid conflict like R.E. Lee? Lee wanted no part of President Lincoln’s poorly conceived tactic and sought to resist it by joining his state’s local military (which was the norm of that era). Because Lee picked the worst of the moral wrongs to tackle he has been accused of being a slavery-promoter when nothing can be further from the truth as one reads his life’s thoughts and efforts. Corey Stewart irritatingly and bluntly asks us how long it will be before the liberal progressives move on next by attacking George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and destroying monuments to them. Lee was easy pickings by today’s Charlottesville Democrat City Council. They do not have to choose between the immense issues of Lee’s day and thus be limited as a human to have to address one crisis at a time.

  2. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    I hope I’m not alone in applauding Doug Desper’s admirable defense of General Lee who remains among the most praiseworthy American heroes. Particularly do I appreciate his suggestion that it is outrageously unfair to refer to those protesting the removal of his statue as “white supremacists.” The writer of this ENS article had no business equating them with supporters of the KKK and those who run the ENS should have known better.

    All the more reason for my being a bit annoyed that my own brief “Speak Your Mind” comment was removed without explanation given that I had essentially made the same point, adding that there surely must be some black Episcopalians who respect the memory of General Lee as much as I do.

  3. The Church that welcomes all banned me, this Episcopalian, because I said that we should love our enemies, Luke 6:27-36. The article says “that those of privilege” especially should go out and protest the alt-right. Jesus said that the privileged should protest by giving up all they own. Thank you, Mr. Trump, both sides are at fault. Bishop Curry has declined my request for intercession. Clearly, it is not a Church that welcomes all.

    1. Blessing John Chelliah says:

      How can both sides be at fault, when one side was bent on committing violence? Mr. Trump is reaping what he sowed throughout his campaign. He dog-whistled his racist base into committing acts of violence, and emboldened them so blatantly that the KKK are now openly showing their true colors, and marching without their hoods. The evil displayed was plain to see, and to blame both sides was a clear attempt to blur the truth. Loving our enemies should not prevent us from calling out those who commit murder. Bishop Curry’s message is timely. Where do we go from here, is the question we should all be contemplating. Do we stay in perpetual chaos, or do we strive toward sanity and community?

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