The outrageous editorial by a Charlottesville daily that preceded violence

ON AUGUST 10, the Charlottesville Daily Progress published an editorial in anticipation of a rally that attracted hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and racists—many of them armed—to the recently renamed Emancipation Park.

More than once, the editorial asks, “How did we get here?”

By way of an answer, the Daily Progress editorial board assigned responsibility. The editorial’s headline urged a lone city councilor—Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy—to “speak up now to calm [a] raging fire.” Bellamy, who is the only black person on the City Council and who was elected in 2015 with a greater number of votes than any other candidate, organized a press conference in Emancipation Park last year and called for the removal of the Lee statue.

He was not the first councilor to consider such an action; councilor Kristin Szakos mentioned the idea in 2013, before Bellamy publicly announced his candidacy. But Szakos is never named in the editorial. 

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The editorial suggests that Bellamy’s call to remove the statue of Lee “attracted the attention of a now dedicated foe, Jason Kessler”—a Charlottesville resident and erstwhile Daily Caller writer who tried to have Bellamy removed from city council and, through that work, became known in the “alt-right” community. Kessler organized the “Unite the Right” rally and applied for the permits to hold it in Emancipation Park.

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The Progress, however, argued that Bellamy “is largely responsible for a conflagration that continues to escalate.” It puts the blame on Bellamy for Kessler’s actions.

Just days before hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, and racists walked across the grounds of the University of Virginia carrying lit torches—and before a Hitler-fixated man was charged with murder and malicious wounding after he drove a car into a group of protesters—Charlottesville’s daily newspaper argued that Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy had “dropped a match on a gas field.”

Alongside its inept assignation of blame, the Progress editorial equivocates. “We observe that the feelings of a majority of our community lie somewhere between the impassioned protesters presented in the news—Ku Klux Klan on one side, Standing Up for Racial Justice on the other,” the editorial board writes—as though the Klan were a civil rights organization. (The second group is actually called Showing Up for Racial Justice.) The name “Emancipation Park” does not appear in the editorial, nor does the word “race.”

 

For 755 words, the unbylined editorial fixates on its authors’ myopic ideas of the park as separate from—and basically untouched by—history.

 

The editorial ignores, or is ignorant of, context. “Lee Park, as it was then known, and the Robert E. Lee equestrian statue have existed peacefully in downtown Charlottesville for over 90 years,” opined the editorial board. “Reports in The Daily Progress from its beginning reflect civic pride.”

Those 90 years include Virginia’s history of Jim Crow laws, massive resistance to school integration, and an urban renewal program that razed a historically black Charlottesville neighborhood and displaced hundreds of its residents. That history brims with frustration, a desire for justice, and the threat of violence: In a 1958 story about massive resistance in Charlottesville, a New York Times reporter wrote, “The possibility of violence, once a school is opened on a desegregated basis, nevertheless cannot be entirely ruled out.”

Yet Virginia’s history of racial tension and legacy of systemic inequality never enters the frame of the editorial. For 755 words, the unbylined Progress editorial fixates on its authors’ myopic ideas of the park as separate from—and basically untouched by—history. It disputes the meaning of the symbols around which the rally was organized; at one moment, the editorial refers to “the park and the alleged white supremacy it represents.”

The racial symbolism of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate legacy is recognized by countless Charlottesville residents, as well as by those city councilors who voted to remove the statue. That symbolism is also recognized by the white supremacists who want the Lee statue to stay in place. Rather than address that symbolism and the history that charges it, the Progress’s editorial board isolated and then criticized a black man whose office requires him to voice the concerns of his constituents. How did we get here?

 

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CJR REACHED OUT TO Anita Shelburne, the Progress editorial page editor. Shelburne directed CJR to Progress publisher Rob Jiranek. (Disclosure: Jiranek was the publisher of C-VILLE Weekly, where I worked for years as a reporter and editor. We overlapped at C-VILLE for just a few weeks.) In an email, Jiranek wrote that he “will be meeting the next two days with editorial staff”—which includes Shelburne and the Progress’s news editor, Wes Hester—“and advisors to discuss and plan our future columns.” Jiranek invited questions from CJR, which he said he would consider, but said he may not be able to provide answers before CJR’s deadline.

“I believe our editorial of the 10th conveys our view pretty clearly,” wrote Jiranek, “so it’s my hope that it stands as written.”

CJR provided Jiranek with a list of 10 questions about the editorial and the newspaper’s perspectives on race. In addition to questions about the Progress’s editorial practices and its “hope” for the editorial itself, CJR posed the following questions:

  • Why does the Progress apportion responsibility to Bellamy?
  • Does the Progress see any problem or contradiction in attributing responsibility to Bellamy, but not to people who coordinated and participated in the “Unite the Right” rally?
  • How does the Progress respond to the allegations of racism directed at the paper following this editorial?
  • What is the responsibility of the Daily Progress for providing historical context when publishing an editorial about a fractious and divisive symbol?
  • Is it the position of the Daily Progress or its editorial board that Charlottesville is not a racially divided community, and has not been during the past 90 years?

Jiranek replied an hour later. He wrote that the Progress’s editorial advisory board “meets every other week, and this editorial fell during the interim between meetings.” Otherwise, Jiranek declined to answer CJR’s questions.

“We’re very focused on our ongoing coverage of the Charlottesville events, and we need to maintain that focus,” wrote Jiranek. He invited CJR “to stay tuned to our coverage and upcoming editorials as I think that will help you understand.”

 

By focusing on Bellamy, Charlottesville’s daily newspaper absolves itself of many of its own responsibilities.

 

The Progress has published two editorials since the rally. The first attributes the violence of August 12 to outsiders. “The violence that erupted here today was imported,” wrote the editorial board. “It was pushed upon us.” The second briefly praises a few state and local elected officials for their efforts to “condemn the hatemongers and to sustain the cause of right-thinking.” Among those praised is Wes Bellamy, the target of the Progress’s first editorial—valued now, it would appear, for the work that the Progress condemned him for.

 

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AS WRITTEN, THE DAILY PROGRESS editorial singles out a black public official and criticizes him for a perspective on a public monument that is shared by thousands of Charlottesville residents—many of whom might offer an answer to questions like “How did we get here,” if their newspaper only asked them. Whether those residents will feel able to trust the Progress after last week’s editorial is another question.

CJR contacted Bellamy, who invited a few questions by email. Answers to those questions, including whether the Progress spoke with Bellamy before publishing its editorial, were not available at the time of publication.

The Progress suggests Bellamy should “use his influence to mitigate the damage” of the city’s racial tensions, after blaming him for setting Charlottesville ablaze. “Perhaps he has learned some wisdom and acquired some maturity,” the Progress wrote—a reference to offensive comments posted on Bellamy’s Twitter account, for which Bellamy apologized. “We would hope that Mr. Bellamy would use this wisdom now to try [to] control the conflagration he helped start.”

But the Progress offers no suggestions for control, and no ideas for mitigation. By focusing on Bellamy, Charlottesville’s daily newspaper absolves itself of many of its own responsibilities.

It also fails to acknowledge its own efforts to document—and improve upon—Charlottesville’s history. In 1924, one day before the dedication of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue, the Progress ran the text of a speech from Confederate historian and Sons of Confederate Veterans commander C.B. Linney without editorial comment. “I thank God that we have lost nothing of our love for the Cause by the lapse of time,” remarked Linney, “which has wisely served to intensify our devotion, and will only reach its climax when we have ceased to live, and answered the last roll-call.”

Decades ago—though not before the dedication of the Lee statue—the Progress published two separate newspapers—“one with white society news and one with black society news.” With last week’s editorial, the Progress risks bifurcating its audience again.

“We are more than disappointed,” the Progress writes of Bellamy, “when a leader abandons that role and leaves civil unrest and economic cost to burn while he watches.” 

But the Progress neglected to examine its own role in the fire. Instead, it stood with its readership in a field of fuel the size of the city while racists walked through with torches. 

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Brendan Fitzgerald is an associate editor at CJR, where he directs the United States Project. His writing has appeared at Literary Hub, The Believer Logger, Montana Public Radio, and The Morning News, where he wrote the “Press Pause” column. His previous work with CJR colleagues was shortlisted for the 2012 Bart Richards Award for Media Criticism. He spent six years as a reporter and editor at C-VILLE Weekly.