Following an incredibly divisive presidential campaign, our country has felt increasingly at odds over, well… everything, from immigration, to LGBT rights, the police, free speech, race relations, and most notably the current president.
In fact, the only idea that seems to have universally united Americans in recent months is the notion that we are a nation divided. While some will argue that the terror in Charlottesville affirms this division as our new reality, I believe these events, as horrific as they are, will mark a much-needed turning point.
More specifically the shameful and tragic death of Heather Heyer will likely prove to be a painful yet galvanizing moment for our entire country, unifying people who agree on very little except that her death should not have happened. Why do I believe this? Because history tells us so.
Heyer was killed when James Alex Fields drove into a crowd of protesters marching in opposition to a white pride rally. According to multiple sources, Fields was a Nazi sympathizer, while Heyer, who was also white, was there to lend her voice in support of racial harmony. Her efforts cost her life, but may just save others much like another civil rights hero who preceded her by 50 years.
Viola Liuzzo was a white, married mother of five when she decided to travel to Alabama to volunteer for the civil rights movement in 1965. She had nothing to gain personally and everything to lose, including her life. She was shot and killed by the Ku Klux Klan while driving a black volunteer. While there have been monuments named in her honor, particularly in her home state of Michigan, Liuzzo’s greatest legacy is likely the fact that her death moved people in a way that the deaths of so many before her had not.
Her murder is cited as among the key cultural moments that helped result in passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. To be clear, there were plenty of activists who had worked tirelessly to secure the bill’s passage before Liuzzo, but she helped transform the image of the civil rights movement, which she called “everybody’s fight,” from that of a black American problem to an American responsibility.
I believe Heather Heyer’s too-short but inspiring life may just do the same.
Though there have been a number of high profile deaths in recent years that have sparked outrage and inspired debates about civil rights in America, none has been as universally condemned as Heyer’s. Even deaths that seemed to be clear cut, such as that of Walter Scott, a black man who was caught on video being shot in the back by a police officer, managed to divide, with Scott’s past imperfections being invoked by those seeking to defend the man who killed him. (Of course, if only perfect people were deserving of humanity or justice, we’d all be in trouble.)
But plenty of civil rights advocates suspected that in the coverage and quest for justice involving Scott and others, something else was at play. Specifically, that when victims are racial minorities, it is harder to generate attention, sympathy, and ultimately action. Gun violence ravaged poor urban communities for years, claiming endless young black lives, but it was the Columbine shooting that ultimately inspired millions of mothers across the country, many of them white and affluent, to join the Million Mom March on Washington.
More recently, the shooting death of Justine Damond, a white native of Australia shot by a Minneapolis police officer, generated more collective condemnation than the many other victims of police violence before her. When the lawyer for her family referred to her as the “most innocent” victim of police violence, he was roundly criticized, yet he was simply giving voice to what many people actually thought, even if they didn’t say it. Damond was a middle-class white woman with no criminal record. As such, her death affirmed that the issue of police engagement is one that impacts all Americans and therefore should matter to all Americans, not just poor brown ones. This means that as tragic as Damond’s death was, her legacy will likely help save other lives, because people are engaged on this issue who may not have been were it not for her.
Before Viola Liuzzo’s death, countless black Americans had been murdered, in acts of domestic terrorism stretching back decades, particularly during the modern day civil rights movement. Their deaths occasionally generated headlines, such as the brutal torture and murder of 14- year-old Emmett Till in 1955. But even the horrifying images of Till’s disfigured face, and the subsequent confession of his murderers—after being acquitted by an all-white jury—failed to transform America the way any decent person viewing those images today would have hoped.
But Liuzzo’s death was covered with a tenacity that previous victims’ were not, and resulted in convictions of some of the Klan members involved for federal civil rights violations, the kind of justice that eluded many black victims of domestic terrorism. (This, despite alleged efforts by some members of the government to impede the investigation into her death.)
Like Liuzzo, Heather Heyer’s bright life, and unfortunate death is likely to cast a spotlight where others were either too afraid, or too ambivalent, or too unaware to look.
Over the course of the last year or so, there were those of us who have expressed fear, publicly and privately, that the increasingly hostile discourse in our country, particularly when it comes to race, was becoming dangerous. Many of us were told not to worry or that we were being paranoid, or that those who truly hate racial minorities and wish to sow racial discord are a rarity, a joke and not that dangerous at all. We were supposed to take comfort in the idea that they were an irrelevant ideological minority with very little power.
And then some of them helped elect a president. Then we were told that while they may have voted for the current president, they still didn’t represent the views of many—and certainly not a noteworthy number of occupants in government or the White House.
Then Charlottesville happened. Heather Heyer lost her life and the president took an uncomfortable amount of time to clarify something most decent people learn as children: that a basic tenet of decency as an American includes emphatically denouncing the Ku Klux Klan, and a person shouldn’t need a lengthy amount of time (or a spokesperson) to do it.
But something else happened in the days following the Charlottesville tragedy. People across racial and political lines have come together to first and foremost acknowledge that racism is alive and well and still a real problem in our country, and second, to denounce it.
People have also come together to celebrate the life and bravery of Heather Heyer, which should serve as a lesson to us all.
In an interview following her daughter’s death her mother said, “Somehow I almost feel that this is what she was born to be, is a focal point for change.”
And she will be. For many years to come.