By Brianna Hamblin
On September 14, Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke at Old Cabell Hall to discuss “healing and rebuilding” in Charlottesville, in the aftermath of the August 11th and 12th “Unite the Right” rally and counter protest. Reverend Jackson’s speech issued a call to action from everyone in the auditorium to register to vote so that citizens can participate in the upcoming Special and General Election November 7 as a step towards change.
Before Reverend Jackson spoke to the University, Orphée Noir had the opportunity to ask him his opinions about issues leading up to the rally and how Charlottesville residents and students should move forward. The “Unite the Right” rally came together as a result of City Council’s February vote to remove the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park (formerly known as “Lee Park”). The protesters came from around the United States and Canada to defend the statues. They also came as self-proclaimed white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Reverend Jackson said the Lee statue should be removed not only for the pain it represents in America, but also for its hypocrisy.
“What this statue business is, is a byproduct of the unfinished business of slavery and the Civil War. Americans have learned to live with the Confederates and Civil War, and romanticize the period, so those engaged in treason and sedition were pardoned—they were not punished,” said the reverend. “Even Robert E. Lee said don’t bury me in the Confederate uniform, don’t put no symbols around my grave site; it would be an affront to the North who’s won the war … The Robert E Lee statues are not honoring his request … So the statue really represents the succession, slavery, sedition, and segregation. It’s a horrible gash in the soul of America.”
Reverend Jackson said that the protesters who came to Charlottesville had a new boldness that has not been seen in the past.
“Historically, the Klan wore hoods out of shame or fear. They’ve become so bold that they walk down the streets with their tiki lamps…with their faces shown. That’s audacity of a new level.”
On September 12, a protest took place on the rotunda in remembrance of the events that occurred a month ago. In doing so, a black cloak was thrown over the statue of the founder of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson. The act was condemned by University President, Teresa Sullivan. The cloak caused conflicting feelings, but when asked what his thoughts were on the controversy, Reverend Jackson said Thomas Jefferson should be regarded as a separate issue.
“One cannot compare the role he played, Robert E Lee, as the general. Which 100,000 Americans were killed for them to maintain slavery and engage in succession and treason. Jefferson didn’t engage in treason. Robert E. Lee did.”
However, Reverend Jackson’s main advice on how to make a difference was for everyone to vote.
“We must turn the tragedy of August 12 in Charlottesville to a triumph in November 7 of this year,” said Reverend Jackson. “We must register to vote fully. Heather Heyer’s death we must remember in November.”
Reverend Jackson is advocating for automatic voter registration at the age of 18 for all U.S. citizens. The upcoming general election will decide who will be the next governor of Virginia and determine the future of confederate statues in the state, but Reverend Jackson also points out other topics that the election will affect such as medicaid and medicare, student loan debt, and the fate of ex-felons.
Reverend Jackson mentioned many of the same sentiments in his speech to the University that afternoon. At the end of his speech, student volunteers from the Lambda Zeta Chapter of Omega Psi Phi and the LPJ Student Funding Committee passed out voter registration forms. Reverend Jackson urged all University students, no matter what city or state they were originally from, to register to vote in Charlottesville. He asked for students to repeat after him: “If I live in Charlottesville, I can vote in Charlottesville.” The last day to register to vote is October 16. Reverend Jackson also called on students to start a University chapter of his social activist nonprofit, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
In closing, Reverend Jackson reminded the crowd of how far equality for Blacks in America has come since his time protesting in the Civil Rights Movement alongside Martin Luther King Jr. “There is unfinished business, but we’re the best we’ve ever been.”