Hundreds of people marched with lit candles across the University of Virginia campus Wednesday night in a contrasting demonstration from the torch-lit white nationalist parade last Friday night.
Students and residents gathered at the Rotunda at the University of Virginia campus carrying candles and glow sticks to sing together for a vigil.
They sang “God Bless America” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” before invoking in unison the civil-rights-era anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
The vigil came together hours after state and national leaders spoke at a memorial for Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman who was killed when a vehicle careened through a crowd on a Charlottesville street on Saturday, injuring 19 other people.
As they stood on the steps of the Rotunda, students there led the chorus as the crowd on the central grounds followed singing “Don’t Let Hatred Blow It Out,” an altered verse to the old gospel tune “This Little Light of Mine.”
The crowd thinned out as the night wore on, but those who came said they heard about the gathering the old-fashioned way.
“They tried to keep things off social media,” said Charlottesville resident Santiago Padrón. “I got like four text messages about it.”
Cara Warren, who was with Padrón, said they brought their own candles for themselves and to share, but there were people handing out LED lights to the crowd.
The seemingly spontaneous smattering of groups who showed for the vigil also received half-sheets of paper with the lyrics to various songs to sing along.
CNN aired live video of a sea of candlelight unfolding across the campus as the crowd headed to the school’s Rotunda and the statue of the school’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, where days before white nationalists and counterprotesters clashed.
Reporters from the Daily Progress newspaper tweeted images and videos of Wednesday night’s scene, which included the crowd singing “Lean on Me.”
The gathering was a “community effort” across university departments, alumni and residents to bring a different face to Charlottesville, said Rebecca Soistmann, a rising junior studying global public health.
She said organizers intentionally kept the vigil off social media so as not to attract attention from other groups that may try to disrupt the peaceful show of unity. People across the university gathered up all the white candles they could find, she said.
“It came through various text messages and [the messaging app] GroupMe,” said Soistmann, who was carrying a bucket used to distribute and collect authentic and LED candles. “It traveled quickly, and I got word of this yesterday.”
Charlottesville resident Ben Brinkop said he found out about the vigil through an email that cautioned him not to place it on social media. There wasn’t a specific agenda or theme to the event, he said.
“I thought it was just about coming out and not being afraid,” the 41-year-old said. “It didn’t seem there was an overarching message, but it felt really good to reclaim this.”
Alumnus Victoria Young of Charlottesville agreed, saying the event was about reclaiming a place that means so much to the local community.
As the crowd dispersed, they sang the university song and headed home.