Cooke’s comments sparked the barely contained discussion about the Ku Klux Klan that seemed to wait behind every topic of everyday banter. What I encountered in Charlottesville wasn’t fear, but familiarity. Black Charlottesville has dealt with racism, has been born and raised under statues of Lee and Jefferson, and has fought the Klan. And it has lived with—and lives with—white supremacy.
“It scared people that didn’t expect it,” Cooke said. “I was raised by somebody who came through the civil-rights movement and saw the Klan firsthand. I didn’t think I would see it, but I knew people were capable of it. It’s not acceptable for blacks or Hispanics to act that way, but people accept this kind of stuff, because they’re doing it in the name of heritage or white supremacy.”
Just a short drive down the road, people shuffled in and out of the Brown’s convenience store. Four old-school gas pumps dominate the parking lot outside, and customers can get a free piece of fried chicken if they fill up their tanks. During the day, members of the Brown family operate the establishment, and fry baskets of the chicken made by the same family recipe that’s been around for generations. When it’s fresh, the chicken is golden-brown, hot, and delicious, and stains the paper bags in which it is passed out.
Mike Brown, who manages the store and mans the cash register, was also reluctant to talk about the deadly clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters that’d just roiled his family’s home town. But reluctance soon gave way to impassioned anger. “I think it was horrible,” Brown said. “I think that the city never should’ve gave a hate group permission to come in the community and get a permit. I understand freedom of speech, but where do you draw the line at? Would you let ISIS come here and have a rally too?”
But Brown was also not surprised, nor was he much afraid, even of the heavily armed militiamen who paraded down his street Friday. When I asked why, his answer was simple: “Our ancestors been through this before.”
Since the dawn of the Second Klan in the early 1900s, the hate group has had a presence in Charlottesville, and donated to the University of Virginia in 1921. In the 1950s, during and after the 1954 Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision, Charlottesville was a hotbed for “massive resistance” campaigns by white citizens against integration, which inevitably attracted the attention of white-supremacist leaders. According to Michael James’s book The Conspiracy of the Good, after Brown outlawed segregation in public schools, white Charlottesville dragged its feet. Sarah Patton Boyle, a white civil-rights activist in the area, wrote articles trying to persuade white citizens to accept the ruling.
In the summer of 1956, Washington, D.C., White Citizens’ Council and Ku Klux Klan leader Frederick John Kasper, along with Alabama Klan leader Asa Carter—who later co-wrote Alabama Governor George Wallace’s infamous 1963 “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” line—led rallies of white supremacists in McIntire Park. The whites-only park was named after benefactor Paul Goodloe McIntire, who also donated the park and the Lee statue at the center of last weekend’s violence. Those Klan rallies ended with Klan members burning crosses in Boyle’s yard. Eventually white people simply closed all of the schools in Charlottesville instead of suffering integration, and created their own private school system. One of those schools was named after Robert E. Lee.