Thousands of University of Virginia students will head back to school on Friday, just a week after white nationalist agitators descended on campus and the town to protest the planned removal of a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee from a local park.
Last weekend’s white nationalist rally, though, was not the first time the university has found itself in national headlines for racially tinged incidents in recent years. During the 2016-17 school year, racist graffiti was found scrawled on walls across Virginia’s campus on least three separate occasions in a single semester. And at the start of the prior school year, in August 2015, the campus was caught up in the throes of a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement following the violent arrest of then-20-year-old black Virginia student Martese Johnson by state police outside a bar near campus. The video of the arrest went viral, sparking the hashtag #JusticeforMartese.
In the wake of the latest violence to rock the campus town, Johnson, now a Virginia graduate and an activist in his own right, released a message on Wednesday for the school’s incoming freshman class. In an open letter, first published on NBC.com, Johnson implores: Pick a side, and pick the right one.
“Stand by your commitment to attend the University, and embrace the opportunity to make an impact now,” Johnson writes. “Our community has faced a myriad of challenges in recent years, equipping us with the knowledge and skillset to approach these issues with productive coalition and solutions.”
He added: “Join us in this righteous opposition, learn from our mistakes, and continue to grow the counter-coalition that we’ve built ground-up. With strength in cohesiveness, we will dismantle obsolete institutions that work to oppress people for their innate traits and personal beliefs.”
“Do not be afraid,” Johnson concludes. “You were chosen because you are passionate, driven, and quite capable. We are in this together, and we will win.”
Trump has taken heat from both Democrats and Republicans alike who say the president should have more forcefully denounced the white supremacists involved in last weekend’s violence. It’s voices like Johnson’s that are around to serve as a moral guide in these uncertain times.
You can read Johnson’s full letter here.