To Fight the Alt-Right

April 9, 2018
Gomes Honoree Jalane Schmidt. Photo handout.
Gomes Honoree Jalane Schmidt. Photo handout.

Jalane Schmidt could hear the chants across the street from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia on the night of August 11, 2017. “Blood and soil!” the torch-bearing marchers shouted as they gathered in front of a statue of Thomas Jefferson. “You will not replace us!”

Schmidt and several hundred others were at the church for a mass prayer service in advance of the next day’s “Unite the Right” rally that ended with one person dead and 19 injured after a white supremacist crashed a car into counterdemonstrators. Clergy put the church on lockdown and urged all at the service to remain in place. To break the tension, one of the preachers encouraged the group to sing.

“He said, ‘We’re gonna sing, and we’re gonna clap even louder so [the marchers] can hear us,’” Schmidt says. “We were scared in that moment, but also resolute. We would not be turned back because they were trying to frighten us.”

As an activist, Jalane Schmidt, MDiv ’96, AM ’05, PhD ’05, puts her principles—and sometimes her body—on the line to challenge white supremacy and work for justice. An associate professor in the University of Virginia’s (UVA) Department of Religious Studies, Schmidt also creates knowledge that counters racist narratives and uncovers the history of slavery and colonization. For this advocacy and scholarship, Schmidt’s fellow HDS alumni/ae will recognize her this April as a 2018 Peter J. Gomes STB '68 Memorial Honoree.

“Like Peter Gomes, my task is to persuade in the knowledge that the end is not guaranteed, and thus the work is an ongoing act of faith,” she says. “The vocation is to address the public square—or a committed subset thereof—and to teach and inspire people by pointing to a prophetic vision that is rooted in common commitments and symbols, so that this group is mobilized and energized to accomplish its cause.”

A Powerful Mix

Schmidt grew up with a deep commitment to religion and activism. When she was still young, her Mennonite parents—including her minister father—moved the family from Chicago’s inner city back to their home state of Kansas. There they formed an intentional Christian community with the goal of living simply and following “Jesus's third way of peace—not violent, but active resistance.” Opposed to US involvement in Vietnam, they minimized their income rather than pay taxes to support the war.

Activists of all kinds passed through Schmidt’s Kansas commune while she was growing up, reporting on struggles in Cambodia, Uganda, Central America, and many other places. In her own community, some ran a kind of “underground railroad” for Central American refugees fleeing war and repression, stewarding them through a sanctuary church network that ran all the way to Canada.

This powerful mix of religion and activism inspired Schmidt to attend Bethel College, a Mennonite institution, where she studied religion, advocated for affordable housing, and demonstrated against the first Gulf War. She says that she harbored “pastoral ambitions” and had an undergraduate advisor who attended HDS, but after graduation chose instead to intern for the Mennonite Central Committee—the religion’s international relief and development agency in Washington, DC. There, she worked with progressive activists from many different faiths and denominations—some of whom were HDS alumni. They encouraged Schmidt to attend.

“I didn’t know that much about the School, but I knew that was where smart people went, and I wanted some of that,” she says.

Schmidt applied to HDS, was admitted, and came to campus in 1993 on a scholarship from the then-named Fund for Theological Education. Once here, she pursued “a fairly traditional course of study” that included the Bible, ethics, philosophy, and theology, and also African American religion. Outside the classroom, she worked at St. Francis House, a homeless shelter in Boston. She went to mass at the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a monastery on the Charles River. (“My love of liturgy.”) She met radical Catholic nuns (“The type I’d heard of back in Kansas!”) and took courses from Jesuits at Boston College and Weston Jesuit School of Theology through the Boston Theological Institute.

Ironically, it wasn’t until Schmidt’s last semester in the master of divinity program that she discovered her academic passion: the study of Afro-Atlantic religions. Classes with scholars Lawrence Sullivan and J. Lorand Matory exposed her to Haitian Vodou, Brazilian Candomblé, Cuban Santería, and other forms of religious expression in the African diaspora. When she graduated from HDS and matriculated to Harvard’s PhD program in religion, Schmidt focused on Latin America and the Caribbean—particularly Cuba.

“I had a chance to go to Cuba and I kept going back,” she says. “I lived there over the course of three years doing field research. I was fascinated by the history of US colonization, neo-colonial relations, and then the antagonism since the 1959 revolution. I also appreciate the beauty and the Creole creativity of home altars dedicated to deceased ancestors, spirits, and gods. I love the intensity of the drumming ceremonies, and the performative spectacle of possession-trance rituals. I just got hooked.”

Mobilizing Footnotes

Schmidt brings this academic focus to the religious studies faculty of the University of Virginia, where her classes explore the question of religion and race. In recent years, she’s also added classes in the emergent field of critical whiteness studies, which looks at the development of whiteness as “an unmarked category, presumed to be neutral—an almost colorless backdrop against which the ‘Other’ is known.” She describes the class as an “act of resistance.”

“I teach about race, racism, and whiteness at a predominantly white institution that was founded by Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder,” Schmidt explains. “The University of Virginia was literally built by slaves. The faculty had slaves. The students had slaves. The institution actively promoted white supremacy. As a woman of color, just the act of being up in front of a class and lecturing is a pushback against longstanding narratives of black inferiority.”

Even so, Schmidt’s activism goes well beyond the boundaries of the classroom and the UVA campus. She refers to her work as “mobilizing footnotes”—highlighting facts that are often forgotten and discussed only among specialists in conferences or academic journals.

“The work of a public historian is to educate a broad swath of people—not just in university classrooms,” she says. “I try to persuasively and strategically amplify important and forgotten aspects of history.”

In Charlottesville in 2016, for instance, Schmidt took part in local public forums about the city’s Jim Crow-era Confederate monuments. The goal was to “change the narrative on race in Charlottesville”—more or less a core responsibility in Schmidt’s job description as a scholar-activist, and one to which she enthusiastically lived up during the public comment portion of the hearings.

“I told the audience and the commission the musty facts of the 1860 Census,” she says. “At the time of the Civil War, 52 percent of the residents of Charlottesville and its surrounding county were enslaved. The Confederate monuments that were installed in Charlottesville’s public parks in the 1920s were meant to hush this history and to promote white Southerners’ romantic ‘Lost Cause’ version of the war.”

Schmidt told the commission that the town should celebrate March 3—the date in 1865 when Union soldiers marched in and enforced the Emancipation Proclamation—as the Liberation of Charlottesville. The City Council agreed.

“Now we celebrate Liberation and Freedom Day every year,” Schmidt says. “This is what ‘mobilizing footnotes’ can look like. Being a scholar-activist can help the public to craft better, more inclusive narratives of who we are.”

The Struggle Goes On

The following year, as the Unite the Right rally approached, Schmidt’s activism was more hands-on. A founder of her local chapter of Black Lives Matter, she worked 60 to 80 hours a week during the summer, meeting with public officials, organizing trainings in nonviolent direct action, educating media, and taking on dozens of other tasks needed to set up an activist infrastructure. On August 12, she and other organizers were in position to guide the counterdemonstration.

She says, “We coordinated with the news media, with legal observers, with live streamers on the street, even with babysitters who were taking care of kids so that their parents could go and demonstrate. Even public officials and reporters were watching our video stream to keep track of what was going on.”

Schmidt had warned local and university officials for weeks about the potential for violence. When the alt-right showed up, however, both seemed unprepared. Surrounded by monitors, Schmidt saw everything that went on that day. She saw friends beaten and injured. She saw a police presence that was inadequate—and, she thought, perhaps unmotivated—to stop the violence. And she saw a white supremacist crash his car into counter protesters, killing a young woman.

Months later, she’s still coping with the guilt and trauma of that day.

“We worked all summer—all the coordination, all the meetings—and we still lost people,” she says. “There was so much pain, anger, and trauma. I had nightmares. I’d wake up crying. It’s only let up in the last month or so.”

Even as she recovers from last summer’s violence, Schmidt says that the struggle goes on. The alt-right has already returned to Charlottesville, albeit in smaller numbers and with less media attention. She and her fellow activists are determined not to allow them to gather uncontested.

In her activities both on and off campus, Schmidt says that she draws on her HDS experience.

“I learned at HDS how to identify the moment when one needs to take action,” she says. “I learned to mobilize people, to inspire them, and to convince them to get involved. I never could have imagined that I would put my training in religion and public life to work this way, but it helped me prepare for this summer. And it’s not over yet. Whenever hate tries to move in, we will hold the space.”

—by Paul Massari