Thousands of people quietly amassed on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville Wednesday night for an unannounced candlelight vigil.
A soft glow illuminated the Rotunda – the iconic historic building at the heart of the University of Virginia.
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 counter protesters around a statue of UVA founder Thomas Jefferson.
The candlelight vigil, which UVA says retraced the steps of the supremacists’ rally, was a rejection of Friday’s scene, says government major 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 counter protest,” 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 counter-protesters, 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 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 it.
Michael Coleman, a 29-year-old musician and sales manager, says 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 gonna be here? Are you gonna engage yourself? Are you gonna talk to people tomorrow and the next day and next day?”
Coleman says doing the hard work when it comes to race will be the big challenge.