Torches Replaced By Candlelight As Thousands Gather For Charlottesville Vigil

Aug 17, 2017
Originally published on August 17, 2017 10:21 am

Thousands of people quietly amassed on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on Wednesday night for an unannounced candlelight vigil.

A soft glow illuminated the Rotunda – the iconic historic building at the heart of the university.

After a dark week in the city, it was a peaceful protest intended to counter a weekend of deadly violence sparked by a white supremacist rally.

People streamed onto campus, lifting up lit candles. They chanted "love wins" and sang "We Shall Overcome" and "Amazing Grace." A student read Maya Angelou's Still I Rise.

On Friday night the campus had been aglow, but with torches wielded by white supremacists shouting racist chants. They faced off with counterprotesters around a statue of U.Va. founder Thomas Jefferson.

The candlelight vigil, which U.Va. said retraced the steps of the supremacists' rally, was a rejection of Friday's scene, said government major Daniel Folsom.

"It was definitely a shock to see a lot of white supremacists surround this statue and surround U.Va. students, some of whom were in the middle of the statue as a counterprotest," he said. "Because this has always been somewhere where we're safe."

That sense of safety was shattered when Charlottesville became a battleground for one of the largest formal gatherings of hate groups in recent history. Their rally erupted in violence as they clashed with opponents.

Memorial services for 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who died after a driver barreled through a crowd of counterprotesters, were held earlier Wednesday. Heyer's mother called on mourners to carry on her daughter's fight against injustice.

At the vigil, people stopped to place their candles around the base of the Jefferson statue.

"It's a very moving experience to go up and put your candle there and you feel the flames," said Ellen Markowitz. "And it's like this will go on, and we're lighting something, like Heather's mom said. We'll make this count. We'll make it a beginning."

For many, this was a chance to reclaim both this space on the U.Va. campus, and the town of Charlottesville.

The vigil was not publicized in advance, but spread through a stealth campaign to thwart any hate groups that might seek to disrupt it.

Michael Coleman, a 29-year-old musician and sales manager, said he's encouraged by the mass rejection of hate, but he wonders if it will last.

Thousands of people "gathered with candles singing is beautiful," he said. "But, you know, if something else happens next week, are you going to be here? Are you going to engage yourself? Are you gong to talk to people tomorrow and the next day and next day?"

Coleman said doing the hard work when it comes to race will be the big challenge.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Thousands of people quietly gathered on the campus of the University of Virginia last night in Charlottesville for an unannounced vigil. Instead of torches, they carried candles. Instead of racist chants, they sang spirituals. NPR's Debbie Elliott was there.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Midway through what has been a dark week here, people streamed on to campus, lifting up lit candles.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIGIL)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) I'm going to let it shine. On those darkest nights, I'm going to let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

ELLIOTT: A soft glow illuminated the Rotunda, the iconic historic building at the heart of the University of Virginia. On Friday night, the campus had been aglow but with torches wielded by white supremacists shouting racist chants. They faced off with counterprotesters around a statue of UVA founder Thomas Jefferson. The candlelight vigil was a rejection of that scene, says government major Daniel Folsom.

DANIEL FOLSOM: It was definitely a shock to see a lot of white supremacists surround this statue and surround UVA students, some of whom were in the middle of the statue as a counterprotest because this has always been somewhere where we were safe.

ELLIOTT: That sense of safety was shattered when Charlottesville became a battleground for one of the largest formal gatherings of hate groups in recent history. Their rally erupted in violence as they clashed with opponents. Later, a driver barreled a car through a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. Two state troopers also died in a helicopter crash.

At Heyer's memorial service yesterday, her mother called on mourners to carry on her fight against injustice. Late last night at the vigil, people stopped to place their candles around the base of the Jefferson statue.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE CRACKLING)

ELLIOTT: Ellen Markowitz stood by the gleaming ring of fire.

ELLEN MARKOWITZ: It's a very moving experience to go up and put your candle there, and you feel the flames. And it's like this will go on, so we're lighting something. Like Heather's mom said, you know, make this count and make it a beginning.

ELLIOTT: For many, this was a chance to reclaim both this space on the UVA campus and the town of Charlottesville. The vigil was not publicized in advance but spread through a stealth campaign to thwart any hate groups that might seek to disrupt things. Michael Coleman is a 29-year-old musician and sales manager. He's encouraged by the mass rejection of hate, but he wonders if it will last.

MICHAEL COLEMAN: Three thousand people gathered with candles singing is beautiful. But, you know, when something else happens next week, are you going to be here? You know, are you going to engage yourself? Are you going to talk to people tomorrow and the next day and the next day and the next day?

ELLIOTT: Coleman says doing the hard work when it comes to race will be the big challenge.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Charlottesville, Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIGIL)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) We shall overcome. We shall overcome someday. Oh, deep in my heart... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.