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Remembering Bree Newsome on South Carolina’s Confederate Memorial Day

Daily Mirror UKDuring the late nineties and into the early aughts, several southern states declared April Confederate History Month. These official commemorations strike me as examples of white people feeling so threatened by the shifting demographics of our country that they feel moved to valorize the racist and traitorous actions of the Confederate states. As a black woman from Texas, you’ll never find me waxing nostalgic for the Ol’ South, but when South Carolina celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on May 10th, I will be remembering Brittany “Bree” Newsome. On June 27, 2015, Newsome, you may recall, removed the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds.

While we think of the flag Newsome removed as the Confederate flag, that flag is not the flag the Confederate States of America flew during the Civil War. The flag we know today as the Confederate flag is a rectangular version of the square battle flag of Northern Virginia. The Northern Virginia battle flag was adopted as part of different versions of the Confederate flag because, unlike the first design of the Confederate flag, it was clearly distinguishable from the American flag during the Civil War. 

When Newsome removed what we now think of as the Confederate flag, she wasn’t alone. In fact, I recently learned that Newsome’s act of civil disobedience involved Black Lives Matter activists with the support of some Greenpeace activists. I don’t want to diminish Newsome’s role in this act, but I find this kind of intersectional organizing inspiring and an important way for us to join forces and resist the current attacks on our democracy.

It wasn’t until I attended Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show “Notes From the Field,” which focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline and the dearth of opportunities and resources for young people of color, that I got to hear Newsome’s story in her own words and to learn just how much was involved in taking down that flag. Hearing Newsome’s story in the larger creative context of a series of monologues was quite moving and reminded me of the many, many people of color across the country responding to racism in all its forms--a broken criminal justice system, environmental racism, racial violence and so much more. During the monologue, “Not a Whim Thing to Do,” Newsome’s words express how shaken she was by the racially motivated murders of nine black people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC. That a young white man could be welcomed into a church and then shoot and kill nine people is shocking, but seems par for the course given the U.S.’s very long history of racial violence. What can you do when white supremacy rears its head so violently?

Newsome and her Black Lives Matter cohorts decided that the Confederate flag could not continue to wave on the South Carolina statehouse grounds. During the monologue Deavere Smith brings to life the moment that Newsome’s cohorts looked to her to be the person to take the flag down. What Newsome was being asked to do was no small thing, and she needed some time to determine if she was really up for the challenge. We know she agrees to take the flag down, but the monologue captures her fear and the moments she took to pray because she understood the gravity of what she was about to undertake. Once she decided she could do it, she started training with the support of some Greenpeace activists, who have experience in guerrilla protest. They figured out what sort of equipment Newsome would need and what sorts of tools she should have on hand to handle taking the flag down. She spent days practicing going up trees in parks and flag poles at schools at night. Newsome had to train for this. In recent months, many of us have been moved to march, write letters and call our elected officials, but I was struck by Newsome’s bravery. Would I be up for this kind of protest--something that required physical training? I don’t know if I would, but it was quite moving to hear the care, preparation and training involved in this simple yet powerful act. At the end of the monologue, Deavere Smith, as Newsome, describes having police circle in as she comes down the flagpole. They had tasers in their hands. Tasers on a metal flag pole could have electrocuted Newsome. But one of the white Greenpeace activists who had helped her train put his hand on the pole, imagining that the police would not taze the pole knowing that a white man would be hurt.

It’s easy to despair about what’s going on in the world, but knowing that people can organize across what we often think of as disparate causes and groups gives me hope that we can work together to resist white supremacy, xenophobia and all of the hatred and fear that keeps our country from living up to its full potential. When I say “hope,” I don’t simply mean a warm and fuzzy feeling, but a strong sense of confidence and trust in our ability to change things--a feeling that actually spurs me on and forces me into action. I may not be climbing flagpoles in the weeks and months to come, but knowing how dire things seem and remembering Bree Newsome and her fellow activists will keep me doing my part, which looks an awful lot like marching, signing petitions and calling my congresspeople.

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