Four years ago today in Charlottesville, Virginia the battle for the soul of America was laid bare for all to see.
The forces of hate and violence were summoned from the shadows as Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and white supremacists descended on a historic American city. With torches in their hands and veins bulging from their necks, they spewed the same antisemitic bile that was heard in Germany in the 1930s and with the same beatings and bigotry we saw in Jim Crow America for nearly a century.
But what they didn’t account for was the extraordinary force of American goodness and decency. In that moment and as we’ve seen throughout our history, Americans of different races, religions, and backgrounds stood ground and stayed true to the promise of our nation: that we are all created equal and deserve to be treated equally throughout our lives.
In that moment, the courage of the nation was summoned. One brave woman, Heather Heyer, a young civil rights activist, was murdered while representing the best of us. Her life and activism are reminders that while we have never fully lived up to the promise of America, we have never fully walked away from it either.
What happened in Charlottesville – and securing the promise of America for every American – motivated me to run for president and now motivates my Administration’s work to ensure that hate has no safe harbor in America.
In my first week in office, I signed an executive order establishing whole-of-government effort to advance racial equity and support underserved communities, and a presidential memorandum directing all federal agencies to combat the resurgence of xenophobia against Asian Americans that we’ve seen during this pandemic.
And in May, I signed into law the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act that empowers the U.S. Department of Justice and our entire Administration to address the critical problem of hate crimes being underreported. The law includes provisions in Heather Heyer’s name that will help state and local governments to ensure hate crimes information is more accessible to the public.
Heather’s mother joined me at the bill signing. As I told her on that day, I know it’s hard. Even with the significance of the law being changed, it’s like getting the news of her death just seconds ago. It takes enormous courage. It’s also especially hard on this day of commemoration. Jill and I are thinking about Heather and her family.
And we know there is more work we must do as a nation – as we saw with the mob of insurrectionists at the United States Capitol on January 6th that joins the horror we saw in Charlottesville as shameful chapters in our history.
We must acknowledge what America’s intelligence community has already confirmed, and what Charlottesville and so many other communities know all too well: the most lethal terrorist threat to our homeland in recent years has been domestic terrorism rooted in white supremacy. We cannot ignore it. We must confront the spread of hate-fueled violence in every form.
To that end, in June, my Administration laid out America’s first-ever comprehensive effort to take on the threat of domestic terrorism. We are doing so by countering and reducing online radicalization and recruitment to violence, disrupting the networks that inspire violence by domestic terrorists and hate groups, and providing new resources for communities to build up local resilience against the spread of hate.
Charlottesville is an example of how this is the work of all of us.
In the hours and days after what happened there, America’s moral conscience stirred. The nation’s military, business, and labor leaders took a firm stand. Political, community, and faith leaders raised their voices. Religious leaders held a prayer service at St. Paul’s Memorial Episcopal Church the night before the rally and marched in the streets the next day. When the Neo-Nazi marchers passed Charlottesville’s only synagogue, Beth Israel, the congregation continued worship services, stood up to the hate, and helped their neighbors. And we should never forget the courage of that small group of University of Virginia students who stared down the mob and did not flinch.
While it may come with enormous pain and cost, the greatness of America is that at our best, we meet President Lincoln’s appeal to embrace the “better angels of our nature.”
That’s what we must do – together – to win this battle for the soul of America.