Panel Discusses How to Respond to Violence in Charlottesville

heather cox richardson

A panel of diverse academics gathered on Tuesday to discuss the recent events in Charlottesville, Va. regarding the removal of confederate statues and what this means for the United States as a whole.

The event, “The Challenge of Charlottesville: Race, Religion and Public Monuments,” was sponsored by the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, the History Department, the Theology Department, and the African and African Diaspora Studies Department.

Five different professors and graduate students from Boston College were featured on the panel: M. Shawn Copeland is a professor of theology focusing on African and African-derived religious and cultural experience and African American intellectual history; Patricia DeLeeuw was vice provost for faculties; Craig Ford, GMCAS ’22, is a Ph.D. student in theological ethics; Heather Cox Richardson is a history professor who specializes in the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction; and Martin Summers is a history professor who focuses his studies on the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, and medicine.

The event was organized as a reaction to the protests in Charlottesville last month over the potential removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, which has expanded to include efforts to remove other confederate statues and monuments throughout the South.

The discussion began with the question of who should decide the meaning behind monuments and whether the meanings can change over time. Copeland said that the meaning behind monuments such as the Lee statue depends on the intentions of why it was built and the message it is meant to send.

Summers agreed and stressed the importance of the historical context of the controversial monuments both when they were erected and the context in which they matter now. Part of the reason why the statues matter now is the white supremacist adoption of the statues.  

Both DeLeeuw and Richardson discussed the significance of taking down different statues.  

“Statues come down when the time is right,” DeLeeuw said.

Richardson echoed this sentiment, saying that taking down statues signals “regime change.”

As a black man from the South, Ford discussed growing up with these statues and learning about how they stood for individuals who supported slavery. He stressed the importance of black Americans’ having an opportunity to tell their version of American history.

All five panelists agreed that teaching the history of the Civil War and why these statues were erected is a crucial step to take going forward. The consequences of the Civil War still affect society today.  

“The past isn’t just the past,” Copeland said. “It’s not over and that’s the point.”

Ford said white people in America have an “allegiance to whiteness” that prevents them from fully understanding the struggles of African Americans. The panelists agreed that America is currently racialized and divided. Summers pointed out that the racial divides often prevent people from recognizing the intersectional oppressions that individuals face.  

A step to moving forward from this racial divide, they said, is to set the standard of equality as the same for all American citizens.

“One of the things I like to do is redefining the ‘us’ and the ‘them,’ and the ‘us’ are the people who envision the concept of freedom as being inclusive and the ‘them’ is the people who want to create an oligarchy,” Richardson said.

In the future, the most important thing to create understanding about the hardships different groups of Americans have faced and to prevent future ones is to teach the past, the panelists said.

“We tell it and tell it and tell it,” DeLeeuw said. “We tell the story.”

Featured Image by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Staff