In the days leading up to Bree Newsome‘s Wednesday night speech at the College of Charleston, protesters pitched Confederate flags atop a nearby parking garage, in defiance of her visit.
Demonstrators, both in opposition and support of Newsome, came to a boiling point moments before the event began, just steps away from the event. A Black man, later identified as 31-year-old Muhiyidin d’Baha, made headlines after he defied gravity to jump over a barricade to knock down a Confederate flag.
Newsome, 31, grew up in the South and knows the flag very well. The photo of her scaling the flag pole to snatch down the controversial banner from its residence directly in front of the South Carolina state capitol building in the dead of summer, branded an iconic image into recent history.
The North Carolina native answered the call to remove the flag on June 27, 2015, just 10 days after the shooting that changed everything––when self-avowed White supremacist Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel AME Church and opened fire, killing nine parishioners.
Newsome said her speech, “Tearing Hatred From The Sky,” is the culmination of a deeply personal journey leading up to that fateful day in June.
She spoke with NewsOne hours ahead of her address to discuss her opposition, the weight of speaking in Charleston for the first time since the Mother Emanuel shooting, the symbolism of the Confederate flag, and why students are the most integral part of social change.
NewsOne: When did the student union first contact you about the opportunity to speak at the College of Charleston? Were you surprised at all?
Bree Newsome: I decided to speak a couple of months ago. After [I removed] the flag, I began getting all these invitations to speak on various college campuses. I hadn’t spoken in South Carolina before, so it was significant to receive an invitation to speak at the College of Charleston. I wasn’t shocked by [the invite]. I also wasn’t surprised that it was 2017 before I would come to speak in Charleston because it’s such a raw thing here. This is ground zero.
This is where the events occurred, both the massacre and the removal of the flag. I think part of the reason I’m getting invitations [to speak] from around the nation is because a lot of people around the nation are not as familiar with the history of South Carolina— particularly about the flag at the Columbia at the State House. I’m just looking forward to sharing some of my personal history. My family was enslaved in South Carolina. There are some deeply personal reasons I chose to remove the flag. I also want to challenge everyone to really make sure that they are knowledgeable about [American] history––that they really understand the larger historical context that is informing this moment, and that we really ask ourselves what is at stake in this moment as we move forward.
So as you know, there have been a series of secessionists who are currently staging small-scale protests around Charleston. They are raising Confederate flags in the name of free speech regarding your address tonight at the College of Charleston.
You gave a tongue- in-check response via Twitter, but I wanted to know your thoughts. S.C. Secessionist Party founder James Bessenger has been very outspoken, so I wanted to hear your voice.
It doesn’t surprise me. I have spoken all over the nation and this is the first time I have encountered folks protesting me, or flying Confederate flags to protest my speaking. I mean, my message is entirely about how non-violent direct action brings about peace, justice and love in society. So every time they fly the Confederate flag to protest my message of civil rights, they only prove my point. It is no different than the photos we’ve seen of the past.
I have photos in my presentation where you see Black folks marching for voting rights and White [counter-protesters] waving Confederate flags in opposition to civil rights. Today, they might be trying to say it’s only about the flag, but it’s not just about the Confederate flag. When South Carolina [lawmakers] raised that flag in 1961, they were saying, this is still the Confederacy. We don’t respect civil rights for African-Americans and we refuse to integrate. That was the meaning when they raised the flag in 1961 shortly after the Friendship 9 protest in Rock Hill, [sparking student sit-ins].
NO: Do you have a specific response to James Bessenger who has advocated protesting is his right to free speech and that the school should cancel your speech because he’s afraid that “your presence would encourage others to deface Confederate monuments?”
Honestly, I don’t really know how to respond to that because it’s just so nonsensical to me. I advocate for free speech.
Do you feel unsafe at all tonight leading up to your address at the College of Charleston?
Honestly no. I have to— you know— be reasonably cautious, and as I said I have spoken all across the nation, and South Carolina is the first place where I have encountered this kind of response. So recognizing that I am coming into South Carolina, and recognizing what the climate is in this particular state and city—I have to take a certain extra amount of precaution.
I certainly don’t feel afraid––[no] more afraid than the day I scaled the pole and for the same reason. For the past month, I’ve been reading the autobiography of John Lewis off and on, and when I look at the history in terms of the type of threat that folks in the past had to face in furthering civil rights, who am I to be intimidated by some folks raising flags across the street?
How do you feel speaking at the school, just blocks away from the shooting, that set off a transformative series of events for the nation, and for you personally? And along those lines, what has your life been like since you removed the flag, and do you think that your commitment to the cause of empowering Black lives has been more emboldened because of it?
BN: Yes. [I’m] an activist and community organizer. What has really changed after the flag [is the] platform that I have been given. I got a message from someone in eastern Europe saying when he finally actually learned about what was going on in South Carolina, it reminded him of the struggle with gypsies where he lives in Ramadi. It has definitely empowered me more to really use the platform to educate [people worldwide about racism and oppression].
Primarily a lot of what I do in terms of traveling and lecturing is really just to educate because there’s so much of this history that’s just not known. It’s really not taught, and we’re not very conscious of it. We have to understand that the moment is a product of the decisions that people made in the past, and the future is a product of the decisions that we make now. I would definitely say it has amplified my ability to not only [inform people about] the ongoing struggles of African-Americans, but also to [highlight] what’s happening [in communities at a grassroots level].
I’d like to hear your thoughts on the Dylann Roof trial. There are reports that he was on his way to another AME church after the shooting, which was confirmed Wednesday. What are your thoughts on the trial and its outcome?
BN: Justice would be you know, folks not losing their lives in the first place. So there’s only a certain measure of justice and peace that can be afforded the families. I think the larger issue that the state of South Carolina must ask itself is: “How did a Dylann Roof come to be?” You know, Dylann Roof did not appear out of thin air, he is a product of the environment of the state in which he was raised. He came from Columbia, South Carolina, which was flying the Confederate flag over its capitol.
So when we see the photos of Dylann Roof espousing the things he’s espousing, he’s only a stone throw away from what the state was endorsing by maintaining this symbol of hate that it had raised over its capitol since 1961.
So regardless of what the state does in terms of prosecuting Dylann Roof, or even executing Dylann Roof, that does not resolve the entire issue because the state must ask itself, “What did we do to produce a Dylann Roof and what do we do to make sure that does not happen again?” I’m not convinced that I have really seen steps taken to address [ongoing] racial oppression, segregation ––[socially or] economically in the state.
What do you hope students walk away with after hearing you speak?
BN: I hope that they are inspired. [P]art of my lecture shares my personal story and just how I came to be in that place of scaling the flagpole and removing the flag. I really hope folks are inspired to examine what they can do to make a change. I think we have a very narrow perception of activism. Unless you are doing something as dramatic as scaling a flag pole to remove the flag, people don’t think it’s activism or it’s a contribution.
What I’d really like to [inform] people about is that the movement is millions of people doing millions of things at the same time. You know a lot of times the way you understand history is that there are these key moments, and key people and events. But a movement in general? It’s millions of people, many of whom are not written in history books.
In the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it was in large part local movements. What I [challenge students by asking,] “What can you do? What do you feel is at stake at this time? And what are your particular talents, gifts, and skills that you can use to help the situation, to help the cause of justice?” I just want them to be committed to being a global citizen, and as Martin Luther King Jr. said to recognize, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.” That’s really the major message I try to leave with students so that they can think about it going forward. There has never been social movement in this country.
Is there anything else that you want to say on the record that you want our readers to know?
The only other thing that I really try to lift up and remind everybody is that symbols are—sometimes we get so focused on symbols. You know it’s important to recognize that this is not about a symbol. This is really about what we are practicing, you know? So just because the flag came down doesn’t mean that racism has come down in South Carolina.
If we’re not practicing freedom and democracy, [flags and banners] are merely symbols. Yes, symbols are important and flags are really important, but what does it mean? It’s not so much can you fly a confederate flag from a parking garage or from a lawn? I don’t really care so much about the flag, it’s about what is in your heart, because as I said, you can fly the American flag and carry hatred in your heart. A lot of the KKK members fly the Confederate flag and the American flag at the same time. So we’ve got to think a lot deeper than these surface levels actions and symbols. We have to really start examining how we are dealing with each other in the world in a very real way.