Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate today to support the journalism you rely on!

Torches Replaced By Candlelight As Thousands Gather For Charlottesville Vigil

Sanjay Suchak
Courtesy U.Va.

Thousands of people quietly amassed on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on Wednesday night for an unannounced candlelight vigil.

A soft glow illuminated the Rotunda – the iconic historic building at the heart of the university.

After a dark week in the city, it was a peaceful protest intended to counter a weekend of deadly violence sparked by a white supremacist rally.

People streamed onto campus, lifting up lit candles. They chanted "love wins" and sang "We Shall Overcome" and "Amazing Grace." A student read Maya Angelou's Still I Rise.

On Friday night the campus had been aglow, but with torches wielded by white supremacists shouting racist chants. They faced off with counterprotesters around a statue of U.Va. founder Thomas Jefferson.

The candlelight vigil, which U.Va. said retraced the steps of the supremacists' rally, was a rejection of Friday's scene, said government major Daniel Folsom.

"It was definitely a shock to see a lot of white supremacists surround this statue and surround U.Va. students, some of whom were in the middle of the statue as a counterprotest," he said. "Because this has always been somewhere where we're safe."

That sense of safety was shattered when Charlottesville became a battleground for one of the largest formal gatherings of hate groups in recent history. Their rally erupted in violence as they clashed with opponents.

Memorial services for 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who died after a driver barreled through a crowd of counterprotesters, were held earlier Wednesday. Heyer's mother called on mourners to carry on her daughter's fight against injustice.

At the vigil, people stopped to place their candles around the base of the Jefferson statue.

Debbie Elliott / NPR

"It's a very moving experience to go up and put your candle there and you feel the flames," said Ellen Markowitz. "And it's like this will go on, and we're lighting something, like Heather's mom said. We'll make this count. We'll make it a beginning."

For many, this was a chance to reclaim both this space on the U.Va. campus, and the town of Charlottesville.

The vigil was not publicized in advance, but spread through a stealth campaign to thwart any hate groups that might seek to disrupt it.

Michael Coleman, a 29-year-old musician and sales manager, said he's encouraged by the mass rejection of hate, but he wonders if it will last.

Thousands of people "gathered with candles singing is beautiful," he said. "But, you know, if something else happens next week, are you going to be here? Are you going to engage yourself? Are you gong to talk to people tomorrow and the next day and next day?"

Coleman said doing the hard work when it comes to race will be the big challenge.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.