The peaceful progress that has blessed Charlottesville since the 1960s was forever damaged by what happened last Saturday.
THERE was a time, 51 years ago, when I thought that Charlottesville was a hateful place, and that the three years I faced going to law school at the University of Virginia would be fraught with hostility and racism. I had never visited the campus, and had spent no time in the South. I long ago realized that my ﬁrst impressions and fears were totally wrong. Over the last ﬁve decades, I’ve returned again and again to Charlottesville, and have come to love it and to see how it’s changed for the better for all its people.
On my ﬁrst day there, I had one of the worst experiences. It was September 1966. I had driven from my hometown in Connecticut, lugged my suitcases and boxes from my overstuffed car to my dorm room, and headed downtown to find a drugstore. I drove down the old main street, which now is the car-free pedestrian mall where a neo-Nazi drove across last Saturday to kill his perceived enemies.
I spotted one very tight parking space that day, and after some back and forth, I squeezed my car in between two others. As I got out, I had my ﬁrst “discussion” with a Virginian. A man about 60, with blue-striped overalls, came up to me and almost shouted in my face: “Boy, there’s no n—— and damn few white men who can drive a car like that!”
I was stunned, and stood silently, a little scared. There were other pedestrians, black and white, within hearing distance. They continued on their ways, and nobody said anything. After looking at the man for a few seconds, I turned to escape into the drugstore. He saw my Connecticut license plates and muttered something about “Yankees.”
My ﬁrst thoughts were about what kind of crazy, ugly place I’d chosen to earn my law degree. But that was my low point. I soon met other students, many of them native Virginians, who have been close friends ever since. I was able to get involved in political campaigns and civil-rights work in the ﬁrst year following passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that changed Southern politics.
By the time I graduated, I realized that Charlottesville was on its way to change. I got a legal services job in Seattle, and began a long career practicing civil-rights and labor law. I soon married my late wife, who, coincidentally, had grown up in Charlottesville. Over the years, we would return every summer to spend time with her family. I was able to watch Charlottesville transform itself into a vibrant and tolerant community. By the 1990s, the tired old main street had become a small-town heaven: restaurants, open-air tables, street performers, coffee shops, theaters and hotels. It was full of pedestrians young and old, black and white, enjoying themselves and their wonderful community.
That pedestrian mall was a joyous, exciting place until last Saturday, when white supremacists with no connection to Charlottesville descended on the town, hurled vile racist epithets at counter-demonstrators, and then one of their number turned to hate-driven killing and mayhem.
I’ll return again to visit my nieces and in-laws, and my many Charlottesville friends. I hope I’ll be able to walk down the mall and remember the joyous gatherings and reunions I’ve had there over the last 30 years. But I’m afraid it will never be the same for me, and for the thousands of visitors who love this glorious little town. We will think of racist motivated killing above all else. What happened there last Saturday is a desecration of the peaceful progress that has blessed Charlottesville since the 1960s.
I’ll return for my 50th law school reunion two years from now, and I’ll have dinner and drink wine with the close-knit group of lawyers who have been my friends for all these years. But there will be tears along with laughter, tears for those of us who may not have many years ahead of us, but also tears for those wonderful young people killed and mangled because they spoke out against hatred and racism.