Heather Heyer is a civil rights martyr
Let’s not be afraid to call Heather Heyer what she was. On Saturday, she became a martyr.
I am sure she never set out to make a name for herself when she headed to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va., to stand up against hatred. She had no reason to be there except that she felt she had to be. If she had stayed home, no one would have blamed her.
Heyer was just a regular young white woman who lived a comfortable life in a picturesque, middle-class city in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
She never went to college, but that didn’t stop the 32-year-old from landing a job as a paralegal at a law firm. Her life had not been idyllic, but she worked hard to better herself. She was privileged, though, and she knew it.
She didn’t have to give racism or bigotry a single thought. She was allowed to make mistakes and overcome them. In Charlottesville, where 65 percent of the residents are white, she never had to worry about being denied opportunities because of her skin color.
By most standards, Heyer had a pretty decent life. But that wasn’t good enough for her. She cared too much about people who didn’t have what she had. And she apparently loved her country too much to watch it crumble in the hands of bigots.
She began the day like the rest of us, spectators at a crucial juncture in history where our standards for tolerance will determine the direction our country goes in the future. But in her death, she became much more than that.
Heyer was killed when a man plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters who were opposing white nationalists and other supremacist groups at a “Unite the Right” rally. The suspect, a 20-year-old alleged Nazi sympathizer, also injured 19 others.
Now, she joins a long list of other martyrs, from all races and ethnic groups, who, over the course of time, have forfeited their lives while standing up to hatred.
I am especially grateful to Heyer, though, because she is white. She stands tall among other unselfish heroes who have chosen to fight for African-Americans and other groups that are under siege, as some of us have grown too tired to fight for ourselves.
Throughout history, every war against hatred has been waged by people of different races, religions and ethnic groups coming together. The civil rights battles of the 1960s could not have been fought, let alone won, without the fearless determination of white supporters.
African-Americans didn’t have the financial resources, the political clout or the necessary manpower to do it alone. I will be eternally thankful that whites who already had more rights than minorities could ever have in America were willing to put their lives on the line for me.
In nearly a half-century, many of their names have faded from memory. But we cannot allow ourselves to forget what they did.
Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, young civil rights workers from New York, were killed in Mississippi in 1963.The sheriff arrested them, along with African-American activist James Chaney, as they drove from a church meeting. A short time later, they were released to Klansmen and their bullet-riddled bodies were buried in an earthen dam.
William Lewis Moore was a Baltimore postman who was shot and killed in Alabama in 1963. At the time, he was attempting to walk alone from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., to deliver a letter to the governor, urging him to accept integration.
The Rev. Bruce Klunder, a Cleveland minister and Yale Divinity School graduate, died in 1964 while protesting the construction of a segregated school in his city, along with other civil rights activists. A bulldozer backed over Klunder and crushed him to death.
The Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Boston, went to Selma, Ala., in 1965 to join the civil rights movement after state troopers attacked activists marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Reeb was beaten to death by a group of white men as he walked down a Selma street.
Viola Liuzzo, a housewife and mother from Detroit, drove to Alabama in 1965 to help with the Selma march after watching reports of Selma’s Bloody Sunday on television. She was ferrying marchers between Selma and Montgomery when she was shot and killed by a Klansmen in a passing car.
Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminary student in Massachusetts, went to Alabama in 1965 to help with black voter registration. He was arrested at a demonstration, jailed and then suddenly released. Moments later, a deputy sheriff shot him to death.
According to a list compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, these were among some 40 people deemed martyrs of the turbulent civil rights era. Activists say there are many others whose deaths went unnoticed.
Like them, Heyer deserves to be recognized for her courage.
She had nothing personal to gain from placing herself in the midst of that cesspool of hatred on Saturday.
According to her friends, she always had felt compelled to do what was right when it came to racism or any kind of bigotry.
Her last public post on Facebook challenges us to do the same.
“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” she wrote the day before she died.
Many Americans got your message, Heather. And if we weren’t paying attention before, surely, we are now.
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She joined the Tribune from the Los Angeles Times in 1989, was a metro editor and the Atlanta bureau chief, and covered Hurricane Katrina, the Obama Presidential Center and national gun laws. A Georgia native, she writes regularly about race, civil rights and neighborhood violence.