CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — Thousands gathered Wednesday night for a vigil at the University of Virginia days after violent clashes in Charlottesville led to the death of a woman during a white supremacist rally. The crowd sang, “we are not afraid,” a verse from “We Shall Overcome.”
The vigil organized by students and faculty grew from word of mouth, phone calls, emails and text messages as the university community tried to begin the healing process. The attendees refrained from publicizing the vigil on social media to ensure everyone’s safety, organizers said.
People cupped candles, and sang spirituals, hymns and “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a roughly quarter-mile long procession that began at Nameless Field and ended at “the Lawn,” near the Rotunda. They had walked the same route that torch-bearing white nationalists marched Friday protesting the removal of the Confederate statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Someone recited Maya Angelou’s poem “I Will Rise,” and the crowd held a moment of silence for the three lives lost on Saturday.
Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal was killed when police said James Alex Fields, 20, drove a car into a crowd protesting the “Unite the Right” rally. The collision also injured 19 others.
Two Virginia State Police troopers also died when their helicopter crashed and burned in a wooded area as they patrolled near the site of clashes between white nationalists and counterprotesters.
“The energy here is beautiful,” Kara Maley, an employee of the university’s Department of Family Medicine told CNN.
“I’m here to support this community in healing and … really give back the love that I know exists here,” she said.
Maley said the love “is the basis for this city.”
The crowd sang: “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” In an improvised verse, they sang: “All around UVA, I’m going to let it shine.”
“They tried to change who we are and after we have been grieving for those few days. I think that we are back on our feet we are going to be stronger than ever, Charlottesville,” Mayor Mike Signer said, CNN affiliate WVIR reported.
Tommy de la Hunty, a British native told CNN, “We’re not going to be defeated by the kind of stuff that we saw here.”
“It really affected lots of people the kind of … views and the kind of actions that happened on Saturday,” he said.
UVA Dean of Students Allen Groves tweeted: “I have struggled to let go of my anger over what was done to us last weekend, but seeing 5000 of my fellow citizens tonight sure helped.”
Kate Wisbey, a teacher, became emotional when she recalled the past few days.
“This community is filled with love and to see what has happened within this past couple days has just been horrid,” she said. “We were really scared it would happen again and it would hurt innocent people.”
Earlier in the day, at Heyer’s memorial service in Charlottesville, her mother, Susan Bro said: “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what? You just magnified her.”
In text messages with a CNN journalist who showed Bro pictures from Wednesday’s vigil, Bro wrote: “Take back the lawn!!! Yes!”
“Now I hope they carry that into constructive change,” she wrote.