The organizers of the August 2017 right-wing Unite the Right rally are going on trial in Charlottesville, Va. Rev. Marvin Morgan is monitoring the trial from the church where he’s serving as an interim pastor, Sojourners United Church of Christ, a couple of kilometres away. The congregation prides itself on its progressive beliefs and actions. While the action pertinent to the “Summer of Hate” has moved inside the courtroom, many of the community members are observing the trial from afar. Courtroom access is severely limited due to security concerns.
In the civil trial, nine plaintiffs, including some who were injured in the riot, are suing the individual defendants and their organizations for an undetermined amount, arguing that they conspired to commit violence. At the time of the 2017 riot, three leaders of the anti-white supremacist effort were serving at Sojourners.
The completion of the trial will permit the community to move its attention to other issues such as affordable housing.
Morgan has served in congregations all over the U.S. In 2011, he was arrested for chaining himself to a fence outside the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles the day before Troy Davis, a 42-year-old man who had been convicted of killing a police officer, was executed. Some had raised doubts about Davis’s guilt. Previously, Morgan had requested that he substitute for Davis at the execution. Morgan’s request was denied and he engaged in a hunger strike to bring attention to the case.
Morgan spoke with Broadview contributor Richard Lord.
Richard Lord: When did you start protesting?
Marvin Morgan: I’ve been protesting various causes since I was a student at Elon University in the early 1970s. We forced the police chief in the town to resign for his racist acts. I went to grad school at Duke University Divinity School. From Duke, I went to a congregation in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, Nazarene Church of Christ. That was rough. Bed-Stuy had some of the highest poverty and crime rates in New York City. So, I was out there protesting in the streets while I was being a pastor and attending Drew University for my Doctor of Ministry program in Madison, New Jersey. I was split between my duties at Drew and Brooklyn. And we were screaming about police brutality, the death penalty, those kinds of things.
I’ve also served in an upscale, all-white church in Chattanooga [Tennessee]. It seems that I’ve been all over the place.
RL: Do you think that the “Summer of Hate” influenced the Charlottesville congregation and you? Does it come up in conversation?
MM: I imagine that people changed without being able to say, definitively, “that was then, and this is what’s now.” How would you interpret their actions to understand what this community experienced in 2017? From the perspective of church participants, that incident in 2017 was all about outsiders coming in here. Charlottesville sees itself as a bastion of liberals. People from outside had chosen this to be their staging ground. But the assumption is that people with those hateful attitudes are not my next-door neighbours. I’ve called on my faith to get through this.
RL: How has that affected your views of these times?
MM: It didn’t stop with Aug. 12. And now the problem is obviously local. It can’t be blamed on outsiders. The issues surfacing at school board meetings, here, today, such as critical race theory, speak of a different reality. Some of those folk who participated in 2017 do, in fact, live here. And they are the ones who show up at school boards now. I don’t think people ever want to see anything like this happening. Because it typecasts the community. There are people who have been trying to deal with white supremacy in their community. And they’re finding that it is too difficult to get folks to believe them that the supremacists are among them. It’s frustrating. It takes faith to continue the struggle.
Now, after what happened here in 2017, it’s like a scar. And no matter how much you scratch the scar, it won’t go away. It just won’t go away.
When people ask me, where are you serving? I say Charlottesville. You know, the place where they had the race uprising in 2017. Now, I’ve stopped qualifying my statements like that. People know what happened in Charlottesville. And people know, especially with what happened in November’s election, that there will continue to be a spot. We have a lot of rubbing to do.
It won’t go away. I think people are feeling bad in this congregation. It’s our faith that gets us through.
More on Broadview:
- 3 Charlottesville residents reflect on removing Confederate statues
- Years of living in a small town nearly ‘white-washed’ me. Then BLM came along.
- Sister Thea emboldened me to take on racism among my fellow Catholics
RL: In addition to the issues brought up by the Summer of Hate, are there new social justice programs in which you participate?
MM: Another new project that I am working on is medical debt. Medical debt is the primary cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. At Sojourners, we are beginning to work on this problem with RIP Medical Debt, a national organization that uses donations to buy large bundles of medical debt and then relieve that debt with no tax consequences to donors or recipients. Charlottesville Clergy Collective, of which we are a member, has joined with us to help us in this campaign. In its first seven years of operation, [RIP Medical Debt] has bought over $5 billion [U.S.] of bundled debt nationwide which has brought relief to three million individuals and families.
Richard Lord is a photojournalist in Charlottesville, Va.
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