On Saturday, in Charlottesville, Virginia, several white-nationalist groups protested the impending removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. There they clashed with counter-protesters; eventually, police and the National Guard cleared the scene. Then a dark-gray Dodge Challenger drove into a large group of counter-protesters, killing one person, a thirty-two-year-old woman, and injuring nineteen others. A twenty-year-old from Ohio, James Alex Fields, Jr., has been charged with second-degree murder.
Kristin Adolfson was there. A graduate of the University of Virginia, Adolfson, who is forty-one, works as a graphic designer at a nonprofit. “I left Charlottesville after graduating, in 1998—I was, like, ‘This town is too small and insular and southern’—and moved to New York City,” she told me over the phone on Saturday night. “Then I returned, in 2003, because there was an element of community that I really loved about this place.” Adolfson participated in protests against the W.T.O. in 1999, and against going to war after 9/11. “I started protesting again when the K.K.K. came down here a couple weeks ago,” she said. She headed downtown on Saturday as part of the counter-protest. Her account has been condensed and edited.
“I’d known about this alt-right rally—I hate using that word, because it makes it sound like something good—for at least a month. I was vacillating between fear of violence and the importance of standing up against this hatred as a white person. By not going out there, I’d be basically saying, ‘Everything is fine.’
“I was prepared, in my mind, for tear gas and pepper spray. And possible conflict with the police. I was also scared of, like, ‘O.K., could I get stabbed by the white supremacists? Could I get shot?’ We all knew—through reading alt-right posts online—that they were bringing their guns. Virginia is an open-carry state, and they can walk around with their assault rifles. I was worried about getting beat up and having my teeth knocked out.
“I had ‘Love Not Hate’ written on my shoulders. I wore my glasses instead of my contacts. In a backpack, I brought paper towels, an extra T-shirt, Ziploc bags. And earplugs: we heard that the police had the supersonic-noise things they use sometimes. I brought this thing called L.A.W., which is milk of magnesium mixed with water, to help if you get sprayed with pepper spray. I brought saline. Snacks, water, sneakers on my feet.
“I’m not there to be around violence—I’m a Buddhist practitioner. So, going in, it was, like, ‘Let’s slowly get closer to places we feel like it’s important for us to be, while still being safe.’
“Many of the counter-protesters were occupying Lee Park—or Emancipation Park, as it’s now known—which has the Robert E. Lee statue, supposedly the issue of contention. There were some alt-right people in Lee Park, too. It was getting tense quickly. Some skirmishes started breaking out and the state police, in their riot gear, started clearing everyone out. Generally, I didn’t feel like the cops were out there to be violent toward us, or valuing—like at the K.K.K. rally—certain people’s rights versus others.
“But I was getting the heck out of there. I always look for escape routes. Most people were moving away from the various white-supremacist groups marching downtown—the neo-Nazis, the Southern Brotherhood, or whatever, with their shields.
“I thought there were gonna be a lot more alt-right people there. As far as what I saw, it was, like, five counter-protesters for every neo-Nazi.
“One of the alt-right factions marched right by and we just stood there and watched them intently, making eye contact. At that point, they ran into another group of counter-protesting locals, who were African-American. The alt-right people were chanting, ‘Heil Trump!’ That got really intense, so we tried to get some cops, but they didn’t come at that point.
“I was about ten feet away when the car came. I had joined a group marching from the Downtown Mall—a group of anti-fascists and Black Lives Matter folks—and we were silently marching by Friendship Court, a low-income-housing area where many minorities live. We’d heard that the fascists had already gone there and tried to cause problems. So we marched by, in silence. We didn’t want to make a scene. We just wanted to be in solidarity with the people there. Then we saw a bunch of other counter-protesters coming down Second Street. Another diverse group. We all were cheering together, marching together, clapping and chanting. There was no one else around. No standoff. We were just marching, being peaceful. This was around two o’clock, I guess. It was a very exuberant feeling of solidarity, community, all that.
“We decided to turn up Fourth Street, to go back to the Downtown Mall. I was with five people, all locals. I was kind of on the edge of this one-lane road, an area that was mostly blocked off. I still don’t know how a car got down there. Then I heard shouts and this sound of, like, hitting, like, traffic cones. This hollow, horrible sound. Like dominoes. And I saw bodies fly up into the air. People were running away. And then the car backed up. I didn’t know what was going on. We were all running away. Then I went back to see—I thought I could help, even though I’m not a medic. At that point, people were moving in and trying to get help and police. And other cars were crashed there. People were saying the car got away. We didn’t know what to think. Someone told me a person was dead. It took a while for the ambulance to get there. People were wailing. Like, really wailing in a way I’ve never heard. It was horrible. It was horrible. It was horrible.
“I was ten feet away, so I didn’t really see details of the car. It was just sudden movement through the crowd, sound, bodies in the air. One of my friends was an inch away from the car. I went and found her and she was looking for her partner. She was freaking out. I stood with her until she found him. She’s in one of those photos circulating around now.
“Then I just couldn’t leave. I had to be there. I didn’t really feel unsafe and I just couldn’t leave. Me and a few others stayed for about half an hour, in shock and processing. This was a terrorist act. Something that happens in so many places around the world, and it happened here in our little town. It was hard to process that. And the hate—that someone could actively take people’s lives, that’s what their goal was.
“Then we decided we had to leave. Being where people were killed, we needed to get home. I left my car and we just walked back to one of my friend’s houses and sat down and texted people that we were O.K. We were glued to our phones, processing it all.
“Most protests I’ve been to have been against a system or an organization or going to war. But, with this one, there were people on the other side. We weren’t protesting these people, exactly, but we were standing up against their hatred, the bigotry and racism. That’s a completely different experience.”
Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee was vilified during the Civil War only to become a heroic symbol of the South’s “Lost Cause” — and eventually a racist icon.
His transformation, at the center of the recent violence in Charlottesville, Va., reflects the changing moods in the United States around race, mythology and national reconciliation, historians say.
Lee monuments, memorials and schools in his name erected at the turn of the 20th century are now facing scrutiny amid a demographically changing nation.
But who was Lee beyond the myth? Why are there memorials in his honor in the first place?
A son of American Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Robert E. Lee graduated second in his class at West Point and distinguished himself in various battles during the U.S.-Mexico War. As tensions heated around southern secession, Lee’s former mentor, Gen. Winfield Scott, offered him a post to lead the Union’s forces against the South. Lee declined, citing his reservations about fighting against his home state of Virginia.
Lee accepted a leadership role in the Confederate forces although he had little experience leading troops. He struggled but eventually became a general in the Confederate Army, winning battles largely because of incompetent Union Gen. George McClellan. He would win other important battles against other Union’s generals, but he was often stalled. He was famously defeated at Gettysburg by Union Maj. Gen. George Meade. Historians say Lee’s massed infantry assault across a wide plain was a gross miscalculation in the era of the rifle.
A few weeks after becoming the general in chief of the armies of the Confederate states, Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
The slave owner
A career army officer, Lee didn’t have much wealth, but he inherited a few slaves from his mother. Still, Lee married into one of the wealthiest slave-holding families in Virginia — the Custis family of Arlington and descendants of Martha Washington. When Lee’s father-in-law died, he took leave from the U.S. Army to run the struggling estate and met resistance from slaves expecting to be freed.
Documents show Lee was a cruel figure with his slaves and encouraged his overseers to severely beat slaves captured after trying to escape. One slave said Lee was one of the meanest men she had ever met.
In a 1856 letter, Lee wrote that slavery is “a moral & political evil.” But Lee also wrote in the same letter that God would be the one responsible for emancipation and blacks were better off in the U.S. than Africa.
The “Lost Cause” icon
After the Civil War, Lee resisted efforts to build Confederate monuments in his honor and instead wanted the nation to move on from the Civil War.
After his death, Southerners adopted “The Lost Cause” revisionist narrative about the Civil War and placed Lee as its central figure. The Last Cause argued the South knew it was fighting a losing war and decided to fight it anyway on principle. It also tried to argue that the war was not about slavery but high constitutional ideals.
As The Lost Cause narrative grew in popularity, proponents pushed to memorialize Lee, ignoring his deficiencies as a general and his role as a slave owner. Lee monuments went up in the 1920s just as the Ku Klux Klan was experiencing a resurgence and new Jim Crow segregation laws were adopted.
The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Va., went up in 1924. A year later, the U.S. Congress voted to use federal funds to restore the Lee mansion in the Arlington National Cemetery.
The U.S. Mint issued a coin in his honor, and Lee has been on five postage stamps. No other Union figure besides President Abraham Lincoln has similar honors.
A new memory
A generation after the civil rights movement, black and Latino residents began pressuring elected officials to dismantle Lee and other Confederate memorials in places like New Orleans, Houston and South Carolina. The removals partly were based on violent acts committed by white supremacists using Confederate imagery and historians questioning the legitimacy of The Lost Cause.
A Gen. Robert E. Lee statue was removed from Lee Circle in New Orleans as the last of four monuments to Confederate-era figures to be removed under a 2015 City Council vote.
The Houston Independent School District also voted in 2016 to rename Robert E. Lee High School, a school with a large Latino population, as Margaret Long Wisdom High School.
Earlier this year, the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove its Lee statue from a city park, sparking a lawsuit from opponents of the move. The debate also drew opposition from white supremacists and neo-Nazis who revered Lee and the Confederacy. The opposition resulted in rallies to defend Lee statues this weekend that resulted in at least three deaths.