In the sorrowful aftermath of Heather Heyer’s murder in Charlottesville, a Twitter user posted that the young woman’s death was especially poignant because she died “fighting for a cause that wasn’t even her own.”
I assume the person behind this tweet wanted to make a point about Heyer standing up for issues that did not directly affect her since she didn’t belong to any of the groups traditionally targeted by the white supremacists, neo-Nazis, or Ku Klux Klansmen that invaded the small Virginia city last weekend. Yet from everything her devastated family, friends, and co-workers have said, Heyer saw this cause as her own, and was deeply disturbed by the swath of hate polluting her city, her state, and her country.
This fight, she believed, is everybody’s fight.
Like her last public Facebook post — “If you are not outraged, you’re not paying attention” — Heyer was outraged because she had spent her life paying attention to the inequalities around her. Her mother, Susan Bro, told a reporter that her daughter always had “a very strong sense of right and wrong” and that “even as a child, she was very caught up in what she believed to be fair.”
“Somehow I almost feel that this is what she was born to be, a focal point for change,” Bro said. “I’m proud that what she was doing was peaceful. She wasn’t there fighting with people.”
Heyer was attending an anti-hate counter-protest Saturday with friends Marissa Blair and Marcus Martin when accused murderer James A. Fields Jr., a white supremacist, plowed his car into the crowd. Martin’s leg was broken after he pushed Blair, his fiancée, out of the way; Heyer was killed and at least 19 others were injured.
Said Blair, “If you knew Heather, you would know that she loves everyone and all she wants is equality for everyone, no matter who you love, no matter what color you are.”
Heyer joins a roll call of white allies who’ve died for the cause of civil rights. In 1964’s “Mississippi Burning” murders, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were killed with James Chaney, a black civil rights worker, during efforts to register African-Americans voters. The following year, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a Keene, N.H. seminarian and activist, was shot to death in Alabama while shielding Ruby Sales, an African-American teenager.
Still, Heyer’s death is especially evocative of Viola Liuzzo’s 1965 murder. A Detroit mother of five, Liuzzo was so horrified by televised images of black protesters set upon by dogs, fire hoses, and baton-wielding cops that she decided to attend a Martin Luther King Jr.-led voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. She told her husband, “It’s everybody’s fight.”
While shuttling local marchers to their homes, Liuzzo was killed instantly when Klansmen opened fire on her car. King attended her funeral, but her family was inundated with hate mail claiming that a white woman who left her family to help black people got what she deserved. In the hours after Heyer’s death, some also tried to sully her name. A neo-Nazi website posted an untrue, insult-filled article about her, but the backlash was swift — the site was dumped by its Internet domain providers.
Now, Heyer is being hailed nationwide as an inspiration, her death a stark reminder that hashtag activism isn’t enough. This fight will be peacefully won in the streets (and at the polls), not only on our screens. Heyer never saw injustice as a fight to be waged only by people of color, immigrants, or the LGBT community. She recognized that the good fight — for compassion, equality, and a just, inclusive world — is everybody’s fight. We can remember her and say her name by emulating how she lived her beliefs, from her feisty childhood until the last day of her too-short life.Renée Graham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.