by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – In a way, the events of Aug. 11-12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, were just a blip on the white supremacy timeline – for the town, the state and the country – says Jalane Schmidt, who teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Schmidt will visit her alma mater, Bethel College, April 15-16 to give two public lectures and speak in several classes.
Schmidt grew up in Newton and is a graduate of Newton High School. She has a B.A. in Bible and religion from Bethel, and went on to earn Master of Divinity, M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University.
She will visit Bethel fresh from having received Peter J. Gomes Memorial Honors from Harvard Divinity School, in an April 12 presentation. Gomes Honors recognize distinguished alumni whose excellence in life, work and service pays homage to the mission and values of Gomes and the divinity school.
Schmidt took a seminar course with Gomes in the 1990s and cites his continuing influence in her academic and political work.
“Gomes called his students, and inspired his readers and listeners beyond Harvard Yard, to aspire to make change,” she said.
“At the end of the day, my task as a scholar-activist is to persuade, in the knowledge that the end is not guaranteed, and thus the work is an ongoing act of faith,” she says, “and to teach and inspire people by pointing to a prophetic vision …, so that this group is mobilized and energized to accomplish its cause.”
Schmidt is currently a faculty member in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. She cofounded the Charlottesville chapter of Black Lives Matter and was intimately involved in organizing against the Aug. 12 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville of white nationalist groups.
While much of the direct action that took place on that day was nonviolent, clashes between “alt-right” demonstrators and counter-protestors in Charlottesville led to the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer and scores of injuries.
Schmidt’s two public presentations at Bethel are titled “Huck Finn Moments: Using White Privilege to Dismantle White Supremacy,” April 15 at 7:30 p.m., and “Holding Space in #Charlottesville: Confronting ‘Alt-Right’ White Supremacy,” April 16 at 11 a.m. These free events are both in Krehbiel Auditorium in Bethel’s Luyken Fine Arts Center.
Charlottesville has two Confederate monuments, of Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Charlottesville citizens’ efforts to remove the monuments, beginning in 2016, catalyzed white nationalist leaders to organize Unite the Right more than a year later.
In aid of the commission studying what to do with the monuments, Schmidt began researching their provenance.
The two monuments were erected more than 55 years after the end of the Civil War, in 1920 and 1921. Schmidt’s research also revealed that shortly before the Jackson statue was unveiled, hundreds of Charlottesville residents attended a Ku Klux Klan rally held at Monticello, the historic home of Thomas Jefferson, with a cross-burning at Jefferson’s tomb.
This, to Schmidt, was incontrovertible proof of the Confederate monuments’ purpose. “They were emblems of white supremacy,” she told Benjamin Walker-Wells of The New Yorker (Dec. 4, 2017). “People like to think that we’re this progressive university place. At the end of the day, we’re just a small Southern town.”
Shortly after the events of Aug. 11-12 in Charlottesville, Schmidt did an interview with “Berkley Forum,” of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.
“The statues’ installation was part and parcel of the construction of Jim Crow and the segregation of public places,” she said. “It was a warning to black people … that they were not going to get fair treatment, that they were second-class citizens. …
“Charlottesville was not a significant theater of the war. Clearly this is what we say when we get faced with the argument, ‘You’re just trying to airbrush history. You’re trying to do revision of history.’ I say, ‘No. These monuments … were revisionist history from the moment they were installed.’”
Schmidt’s outspokenness on the white nationalist presence and racist history in Charlottesville earned her a place on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2017 “Influence List,” which included eight individuals plus a law firm who Chronicle staff believe “affected federal policy, campus culture and the national conversation about education in 2017 – and who are likely to remain influential in the year ahead.”
Schmidt emerged as “a particularly clear and forceful voice” among a group of UVA professors who stepped into activist roles in 2017. She didn’t hesitate to speak against her own university, criticizing President Teresa Sullivan and other administrators for failing to either adequately prepare for or respond to the Unite the Right march that took place in part on university property.
Schmidt’s research and teaching over the past 20 years has focused on African-diaspora religions of the Caribbean and Latin America. She has more recently pressed UVA to deepen its probing of the institution’s own relationship to slavery and race.
Her research around Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments helped call attention to a $1,000 gift UVA might have received nearly a century ago from the KKK – leading to a pledge from the university of $12,500 (the equivalent of the donation in today’s dollars) to people injured in violent clashes with Unite the Right.
Schmidt is clear that what happened in Charlottesville last August was what she called in the “Berkley Forum” interview “just the most visible manifestation [in Charlottesville] of white supremacy.” It didn’t start with Unite the Right, nor does it end there.
The clergy, Black Lives Matter and other activist groups who organized to oppose the rally have kept the pressure on local officials, through attending Charlottesville city council meetings and with social media campaigns, to address long-standing issues of systemic racism.
“The true struggle, the true war, is the ongoing white supremacy of every day,” Schmidt told “Berkley Forum.” “The 80 percent stop-and-frisk rate – 80 percent of police warrantless searches are of African Americans, even though we constitute only 19 percent of the population. Or the excess force that’s been used against black folks. Or gentrification [in Charlottesville] that’s increasingly pushing black people outside town.”
Schmidt continues to push the university to acknowledge and address “the present-day ripple effects of slavery, calling for all members of the university’s work force to earn a living wage,” Jack Stripling noted in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Schmidt is currently on leave from her position at UVA to research and begin writing a book meant to be “an activist’s account of a university and a town grappling with its history and struggling against the forces of white supremacy.”
Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities, the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, all for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.
Bethel College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, parental or marital status, gender identity, gender expression, medical or genetic information, ethnic or national origins, citizenship status, veteran or military status or disability. E-mail questions to TitleIXCoordinator@bethelks.edu.