“I removed the flag not only in defiance of those who enslaved my ancestors in the southern United States, but also in defiance of the oppression that continues against black people globally … I did it for all the fierce black women on the front lines of the movement and for all the little black girls who are watching us. I did it because I am free.”
On June 27, 2015, Americans watched an unnamed woman scale a thirty-foot pole and remove the Confederate flag from outside the State House in Columbia, South Carolina. We soon learned her name: Brittany “Bree” Newsome.
Newsome is a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and holds a BFA degree in film and television. While in high school, Newsome composed music for the Baltimore Choral Arts Society. In college, she won several film competitions and since then has released an EP titled #StayStrong: A Love Song to Freedom Fighters. For Newsome, art is activism.
The courageous thirty-year-old filmmaker, activist and songstress’s famous action took place one day after President Obama had eulogized the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a member of the South Carolina Senate and one of nine shooting victims in Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Newsome worked with a team of ten people who strategically planned to film the removal of the flag so that the world could see “good trouble” in action. Newsome gives credit to Todd Zimmer, a fellow organizer, for envisioning the video, which had such a powerful impact.
As she scaled the flagpole, Newsome shouted, “You come against me with hatred. … I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!” On her way down, carrying the Confederate flag, she recited the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 27: “Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors. Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, spouting malicious accusations.”
On the ground she was met with both cheerleaders and adversaries. Some called her a hero while others hurled racial slurs that were woven into the fabric of the Confederate flags’ history.
Asked by a reporter from Charleston’s WIS TV why she removed the flag, Newsome said, “We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer. We can’t continue like this another day. It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality. Every day that the flag is up there is an endorsement of hate.”
“We are regular human beings, daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, Carolinians, educators, and activists —both black and white— who believe in the fundamental idea of humanity,” said an unidentified member of Newsome’s group. “The flag we removed is one of the most familiar remnants of white supremacy that supports the idea that there is still a reigning group of individuals who control our freedom, while tacitly supporting white Americans when they commit heinous and racially charged hate crimes against Blacks and People of Color. We took this task in our own hands because our President, Governor, mayors, legislators, and councilmen had a moral duty to remove the flag but failed to act. We could not sit by and watch the victims of the Charleston Massacre be laid to rest while the inspiration for their deaths continued to fly above their caskets.”
Within minutes of returning to the ground Newsome and another activist James Ian Tyson were arrested. (Tyson helped holster Newsome and waited for her at the bottom of the pole.) Just hours after the flag was taken down, it was raised again. Rallies held by white supremacists and advocates of the flag were held in cities around the country.
In less than twenty-four hours the hashtag #FreeBree surfaced on the Internet along with coverage of the historic moment. Over $80,000 was crowd funded for her bail. In total, 4,943 people raised $125,705 on Indiegogo for Newsome to support whatever financial obligations she might face due to her arrest. The flag was permanently removed by the state legislature on July 10, 2015.
In an interview with ELLE magazine a year after her action, Newsome explained why the viral video was key. “It mattered that scaling the flagpole was difficult. The physical battle to climb up there and get that flag was like the struggle to dismantle systemic racism. Nothing about it is easy.”
National moments of unrest due to the recurring acts of brutality against Black people are what motivates Newsome’s civil disobedience. When living, breathing and being Black is a protest in America, it calls for constant action. She, along with countless others, are now regarded as notable millennials within the modern civil rights movement.
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