Activist who took down Confederate flag drew on her faith and on new civil rights awakening
HOT SPRINGS, N.C. (RNS) As she prepared for her mission — scaling the 30-foot flagpole outside the South Carolina Statehouse to bring down the Confederate flag — Bree Newsome reread the biblical story of David and Goliath.
A youth organizer with Ignite NC, a nonprofit group challenging voting laws, Newsome appeared briefly to raucous cheers Saturday (July 11) on the main stage of the Wild Goose Festival after speaking to a smaller crowd at the four-day camp revival that celebrates spirituality, arts and justice.
The 30-year-old activist, a dedicated Christian, drew on the biblical story of the Hebrew shepherd boy who slays a giant with a sling and a stone.
“I don’t even feel like it was my human strength in that moment,” said Newsome. “I’m honestly just so humbled.”
On June 27, Newsome climbed the flagpole to remove the Confederate battle flag, a symbol that represents a war to uphold slavery and, later, a battle to oppose civil rights advances.
Her action came 10 days after the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., in which nine participants of a Bible study, including the pastor were killed.
She was charged defacing a monument, a misdemeanor, according to a statement from the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, and could face a fine of up to $5,000 and up to three years in prison.
On Friday (July 10), the Confederate flag was lowered for good after state legislators signed a bill authorizing its removal.
For Newsome, it was a step too late.
“Why did people have to die for people to realize the state had been promoting hate with this symbol?” she asked.
Newsome grew up hearing her grandmother’s story of her black neighbor brutally beaten by Ku Klux Klan members because he was a doctor who treated a white woman. She told of ancestors who came through Charleston’s slave market and others who died in lynchings.
Invited to speak to the mostly white audience long after the festival schedule was set, Newsome joined a roster of speakers on the theme of “Blessed Are the Peacemakers,” a nod to the nonviolent activism of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.
This year’s gathering honored the festival’s “Fairy Godmother” Phyllis Tickle, the Christian author and editor diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. Speakers included Ferguson Commission member Traci Blackmon, Moral Monday founder William Barber, and immigrant-advocate Alexia Salvatierra.
“We were in the presence of history,” poet Merrill Farnsworth said of Newsome’s appearance. “I was really glad to catch a glimpse of the person who did this.”
The daughter of a Baptist minister, Newsome said she felt a calling into a new civil rights campaign following the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, a killing she likened to the death of Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old boy mutilated in 1955 after allegedly flirting with a white woman.
After the police killing of Michael Brown in Missouri last year, Newsome helped to convene The Tribe, a grassroots collective dedicated to community building.
Her actions at the South Carolina state capitol grew out of what she calls her “crisis of faith” following the Emanuel shootings.
“This is like 9/11 to me,” Newsome said. “I see people just going about their daily lives. I can’t do that. I can’t function.”
On one hand, she said, the victims’ families quick forgiveness of accused killer Dylann Roof was a “rare display of Christ-like behavior.”
On the other hand, she said, forgiving too easily has helped perpetuate racist systems.
Speaking to some 300 people who crowded into the festival’s Spirituality Tent, she said she preferred action.
“Jesus is one of the biggest agitators that ever lived,” she said. “The only time Jesus was in the temple was when he’s flipping stuff over and stirring things up.”
Activists from Charlotte, N.C., had already been planning to remove the flag and had taken photos of the pole in preparation when they asked Newsome to join. They talked about the symbolic power of having a black woman remove the flag.
“Hollywood’s created plenty of white heroes,” said activist James Ian Tyson, who appeared alongside Newsome Saturday and spoke of his role that day — kneeling on the ground so she could climb onto his back and over the four-foot fence surrounding the flagpole.
Newsome said it wasn’t an easy decision to climb the pole. She was afraid for her life and asked her sister, whom she described as a “prayer warrior,” to pray for her.
Her faith helped her overcome her fear. She recounted an argument with a police officer that ordered her down.
“You’re doing the wrong thing,” she said the officer told her.
At that moment, she said, she remembered her reading of David and Goliath.
And she kept repeating the 27th Psalm: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” as she descended the pole.
“If we really want to work for a peaceful society, we have to agitate,” she said. “Until the people in power have to deal with you, they won’t.”
Newsome recalled figures like Rosa Parks, whose acts of civil disobedience led to gains in racial equality. She said she hopes for a day when black people won’t have to face obstacles to voting, endure underfunded schools or fear losing their lives at the hands of police.
“This to me feels like the beginning,” she said.
Still, festival organizers provided an eight-person security detail to make sure no one tried to infiltrate the Hot Springs Resort grounds to harm the pair.
At an interview after her talk, festival producer Rosa Lee Harden introduced Newsome to Blackmon, a pastor helping people in Ferguson respond to the Michael Brown shooting. The pair embraced quietly and Blackmon broke into tears as she thanked the young activist.
“You lit my fire,” Blackmon said.
“Y’all lit my fire in Ferguson,” Newsome said.
“God is a God of liberation,” she added. “I know that he heard my great, great grandmother in South Carolina when she was praying for her children to be free, and we’re going to keep praying until we’re all free.”
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