Since her murder in Charlottesville on Saturday, I have been unable to put Heather Heyer out of my mind. Every time I see a news account about her, I feel a powerful wave of emotion throughout my entire body. When I hear her mother speak of her daughter, I have to turn away; it’s too much to bear. This is not unusual for me. I felt it when nine innocent lives were snuffed out at Mother Emanuel Church two years ago in Charleston, South Carolina, by another depraved young American racist. And I feel it every time human beings die at the hands of racist violence and terror in the United States.

This murder of Heather Heyer, for whatever inexplicable reasons, brought me back to my feelings in the summer of 1964. I was a young civil rights activist and I recall hearing the news report on August 4 of that year when the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were discovered. These young men––two Jews and an African American––were murdered in Mississippi by white racists for their civil rights work in that state. Not long before, I had been in the South doing civil rights work, mostly in Alabama and Louisiana, but I had driven through the general area where these young activists had been arrested, jailed, and murdered.

It is difficult to describe the intensity of my feelings at the time when I heard the news. I can say that my reaction to the news was, and remains, intense. To put it in perspective, I had a far stronger reaction to the tragic murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner than I did a few years earlier to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I offer no apology about this comparison and I feel no guilt. I suspect that many civil rights movement veterans had similar reactions.

I’m sure that Saturday’s racist murder in Virginia has liberated powerful emotions in my personal history. I am a second-generation Holocaust survivor. I grew up in a family where my parents conveyed to all their five children that racism anywhere was racism everywhere and needed to be fought vigorously. They were powerfully involved in anti-racist work in Pennsylvania in the 1950s and they paid dearly for their activism in an era of late McCarthyism. That catalyzed my own lifetime of activism and explains my reaction to the horrific murder of Heather Heyer.

Like millions of people through America and the world, I have been riveted by the events in Charlottesville. But seeing Nazi flags and people chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us” as they march ostensibly to preserve the statue of a treasonous general is more than unnerving. The swastika was the symbol under which six million Jews and millions of other people were murdered, including my grandparents, aunt, and uncle, all of whom I never knew.

The Confederate flag was also prominently on display––another evil racist marker associated with murder and untold human horror and suffering. This also unnerved me in tremendous visceral ways. I saw that grotesque symbol hundreds, maybe thousands, of times during my civil rights work in the South. More important, I saw the twisted face of bigotry then, watching racists call my African American friends and fellow activists vile epithets.

Heather Heyer devoted her young life to opposing this racism and injustice. Her life of 32 years was well lived and one that I hope my own university students can emulate for themselves. It was a moral life, dedicated to decent and humane purposes. It pains me severely to think of what happened to her and what she might have done in the future. As a teacher, I have regularly sought to keep the memory of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner alive. I will do the same with Heather Heyer.

It pains me to realize that in 2017, we have Nazis and white racists marching in the streets of America, shamelessly advocating the worst of the human species. It pains me that we have a morally bankrupt president whose insensitivity and historical ignorance is unrivaled. Above all, it pains me to admit that after seeing the display of the swastika and the stars and bars, I am glad that my parents are no longer here to witness this travesty.

May Heather Heyer rest in peace and may her ideals be fulfilled in our lifetimes.

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Paul Von Blum is a senior lecturer in African American studies and communication studies at UCLA and author of a new memoir, A Life at the Margins: Keeping the Political Vision, and a short biography of Paul Robeson, Paul Robeson For Beginners (2013).


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