During her 15-year tenure as NBC “Today Show” co-anchor, UVA alum and journalist Katie Couric was known as America’s Sweetheart. These days, she’s way past that chipper morning news persona, and having finished a six-part series delving into the most contentious issues facing the country today, she says she’s exhausted.
Couric was in Charlottesville April 4 to screen at the Culbreth and Paramount theaters “Re-righting History,” the first episode of the National Geographic series she’s made called “America Inside Out.” The Virginia Film Festival sponsored the event.
She was already working on the legacy of Confederate monuments and names on public buildings before she came here for the August 12 weekend. A high school friend of her daughter’s was going to Yale, and Couric wondered what it was like for an African-American to live in a dorm called Calhoun College, named for a slavery-advocating U.S. vice president.
And then the Lawn where Couric lived as a student was flooded with tiki torch-carrying white supremacists and neo-Nazis chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”
“Little did we know what happened in Charlottesville would take a young woman’s life and change Charlottesville forever,” she said before the screening to a packed house at the Paramount.
Her documentary calls August 11 and 12 “one of the most savage displays of hate America has seen.”
Locals Zyahna Bryant, the then 15-year-old Charlottesville High student who started the petition to remove the Lee statue, activist Don Gathers and Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler, who says the rally’s purpose was to prevent the ethnic “cleansing of white people,” appear in the 47-minute episode that took Couric to New Orleans and Montgomery, Alabama, to explore how the Lost Cause rewriting of history came about and still impacts us today.
The August 12 clashes on the screen “look like the civil rights era all over again,” narrates Couric, and images of the July Ku Klux Klan rally here are interspersed with archival footage of the KKK in its heyday.
The Paramount audience, many of whom were present at the white supremacist invasions, booed when President Donald Trump came on the screen to denounce the hatred and bigotry “on many sides.”
Couric interviewed Confederate heritage defenders, descendants of slave owners now shamed by their ancestors and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who described how he came to remove the Big Easy’s monuments after his friend, Wynton Marsalis, told him what it was like to see them through his eyes.
Historians described how the spike in Confederate monuments came around the beginning of the 20th century as Jim Crowe and lynchings reasserted white supremacy, and the Lost Cause narrative sanitized slavery and the Civil War. “Gone with the Wind did more to shape the history than anything I’ve taught,” said UVA Civil War expert Gary Gallagher.
The landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision also led to a spike in naming schools after Confederate generals, a background of which many whites, like actress Julianne Moore, were unaware. Moore, who went to J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax, led a petition to rename the school, whose moniker she now calls “shameful.”
“Why do we have such a hard time coming to grips with our past?” asked Couric.
After the screening, UVA’s Larry Sabato led a panel discussion with Couric, Bryant, Gathers, Gallagher, UVA historian John Mason and religious leader Seth Wispelwey.
Historian Gallagher doesn’t want a rush to remove statues, instead suggesting there’s more history that can be memorialized, such as the 250 black men from Albemarle who “put on blue uniforms” of the Union.
“People of color often have to put our trauma on the back-burner at the expense of teaching other people about white supremacy,” said Bryant.
And Gathers said, “If a monument to a slave owner is necessary to teach history, it’s time to change the curriculum.”
Thomas Jefferson came up as a prime example of America’s complicated past, and Mason suggested the TJ statue in front of the Rotunda be shrouded at least one week a year in recognition of the less-laudable aspects of the Declaration of Independence’s author, whom Mason called the “godfather of scientific racism.”
Mason also pointed out that many race-based issues, like stop and frisks, gentrification and education, were issues in Charlottesville before August 12. “We’re a very self-congratulatory city,” he said.
Other current events were part of the discussion. Wispelwey called out Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania for prosecuting the three black men charged August 12. He also mentioned City Council’s decision a few days earlier to approve West2nd and asserted that its nearly 100 luxury condos and the 16 affordable units will not help with wealth inequality, with West2nd developer Keith Woodard sitting a few feet away in the audience.
Couric had the last word, and she called for continuing the oft-difficult conversations in which she admitted, “I find myself feeling uncomfortable.” But she said the more she talks to people, the more she’s convinced “people want to do the right thing.”
When Sabato asked what she would change, she said, “I wish we were in a place where there would be a little less harsh judgment.” And she cited the wisdom of her mother, who said, “You get more flies with honey.”
The series premieres at 10pm Wednesday, April 11, on the National Geographic channel.
Clarification April 11: Zhayna Bryant’s comment about African American’s trauma being put on the back burner specifically addressed teaching others about white supremacy.