In a Post-Charlottesville Nation, ‘Everything Feels Different and the Same’

I remember wondering whether there was a lesson here, some tidy symbolism about the waning Southern fixation over symbolism. Then Charleston happened.

I returned to the South to cover it for The Times in 2014, after two years in Latin America as a foreign correspondent for a rival newspaper. On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, an avowed white supremacist and dead-eyed Confederate fanboy, entered downtown Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and murdered nine innocent black people, hoping to spark a race war.

I scrambled to cover the episode and its aftermath with my colleagues, too busy to let the horror and the pain of it sink in. I did not cry until six months later, when, in the course of writing a follow-up, I had a chance to focus my attention on a widely shared photo of one of the victims, Tywanza Sanders, who had died at the age of 26.

In the photo, Mr. Sanders is wearing a graduation cap and gown. His arms are crossed and he wears a big, easy, confident smile. It is as though he had been given some secret reassurance that everything was going to be fine.

After the shooting, the South Carolina Legislature removed the battle flag from the Statehouse grounds, but elsewhere in the South — including Haralson County and New Orleans, my hometown — white Southerners rallied around the flag and the Confederate monuments that many now wanted taken down or hauled away. I have been telling iterations of their stories ever since, and expect to tell more in the months to come.

Now, we have a post-Charlottesville nation to understand. Everything feels different and the same. I am busy.

When things calm down, I hope to go running with my friend Johnny on the trails at Stone Mountain Park, east of Atlanta. The park’s namesake is massive granite outcropping, and one side features a massive carving of three Confederate heroes: President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

When we go, I am often surprised and delighted to notice, as we lace up, that our white faces are in the minority there. I remember riding the funicular three years ago with a recently arrived Guatemalan family, and asking them, in Spanish, who those men were carved on the side of the rock. No idea, they said, smiling.

Later, I remember interviewing a number of black visitors for a story. Some had issues with the carving. Some were content to let it be. For both camps, the park was their place — our place — to run, to bike, to walk, to feel free.