Charlottesville and the Rise of the Alt-Right

The torch-lit marches and white-power terrorism that occurred in Charlottesville in August 2017 shocked the residents and the nation. Actually the city had been under siege for several months during what anti-racists activists called “The Summer of Hate.” Why did this group of neo-Nazis and alt-right activists target Charlottesville? How did they build a base here? And where do they fit in the city’s history of black life, white supremacy, and progressive politics? This was discussed by Nicole Hemmer, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. A podcast of the presentation and Q&A is below. Start the podcast and then click here for the PowerPoint used. The program was moderated by SSV past president Bob McGrath.

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Dr. Hemmer covered the events of August 11 and 12 for Vox, where she is a columnist. She is the creator, producer, and host of the podcast series “A12: The Story of Charlottesville,” named by The Guardian as one of the best podcasts of 2018.

Hemmer is an expert on the history of American politics and media. As an assistant professor in Presidential Studies at the Miller Center, she works on a wide-ranging set of projects, both scholarly and public. She works in the Presidential Recordings Program, focusing on the Nixon administration and its media relations. Her broader scholarship focuses on the history of conservatism and media. Her first book, Messengers of the Right, Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, charts the history of conservative media activism in the United States, and her current work-in-progress is a history of conservatism in the 1990s.

Hemmer is also an active public intellectual, appearing frequently in print and on air. She is founder and editor of the Washington Post’s “Made by History” blog, a contributing editor to Vox, and she also writes as a syndicated columnist for Fairfax Media in Australia. She co-hosts and produces the popular history podcast Past Present. Her commentary on U.S. politics has appeared in numerous national and international outlets, including the New York Times, Politico, Atlantic, New Republic, Vox, Los Angeles Times, and NPR’s Morning Edition. She provides regular analysis to Australian and American broadcast outlets, on both radio and television.

Hemmer holds an appointment as a research associate at the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney, where she was a postdoctoral fellow in 2011-12. She received her PhD in U.S. history from Columbia University, and previously taught at the University of Miami. In 2015, she was a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Program Summary

“When the Fascists Came to Town” was a commentary on Charlottesville history and why the Alt-Right chose Charlottesville to focus their attention. The well told narrative of Charlottesville being the home of three presidents has another story of Charlottesville being the home to successful African American and Jewish communities. In the 1920 with the rise of the KKK and oppression of blacks and Jews there was a change in attitudes.

More recent history after the Charleston Massacre when Dylann Roof committed mass murder of nine African Americans in a black church, attitudes again changed, and people were looking for a more balanced presentation of history. Thus, the focus on statues arose.

Emboldened by the Trump election, the Alt-Right in the summer of 2017 under the leadership of Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler planned a rally in Charlottesville. The goal was to reframe the argument that the Alt-Right protest was not a white supremacy v. anti-racism event, but rather the Alt-Right was a mainstream movement promoting free speech and it was the left which was intolerant. The organizers even told participants not to bring Nazi flags, etc. However, the participants did not listen. The torchlight march at the University on August 11 undid the free speech argument of the Alt-Right and by the next day the Alt-Right was seen not to be a proponent of free speech, but rather a violent organization intending to do harm.

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