Bree Newsome reflects on taking down South Carolina’s Confederate flag 2 years ago

Bree Newsome takes down the Confederate Flag at the South Carolina Statehouse

Two years ago, a young woman did something nearly unthinkable: Brittany “Bree” Newsome approached the South Carolina statehouse, scaled a 30-foot flagpole, and took down the Confederate flag.

“You come against me with hatred, oppression, and violence,” Newsome shouted with the flag in her hand. “I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.”

Newsome’s move, for many, was nothing short of cathartic. Weeks before, white supremacist Dylann Roof gunned down nine parishioners and injured three more during Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The day before Newsome climbed the flagpole, former President Barack Obama gave a moving eulogy for South Carolina state senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the shooting’s victims, in which he called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds, describing it as “a reminder of systemic oppression and racial subjugation.”

Newsome’s move caused an uproar but soon after, then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill removing the flag from the Statehouse grounds permanently. This year, New Orleans has removed several Confederate monuments from across the city, but local groups are calling for more. And most recently Baltimore removed four confederate statues including the Robert E. Lee and Thomas Stonewall Jackson monument and the Roger B. Taney Monument. In 1857, Taney, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote the landmark Dred Scott decision in which he concluded persons of color were not citizens.

Only a few years ago, Newsome says she would have been considered a hashtag activist. She worked as an artist in residence at Saatchi & Saatchi ad agency in New York, and was focused on art and filmmaking. Then the George Zimmerman verdict came, acquitting him of murdering Florida teenager Trayvon Martin. She said that verdict coupled with the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling on voting rights was a wake-up call. She went from tweeting to protesting and marching. Today Newsome says she is an artist and an activist who wants to use her background in communications to give voice to social justice issues.

Looking back on the anniversary of her bold act, Newsome reflects on the days leading up to the protest, and what racial activism looks like in the Trump era.

Lottie Joiner

Why did you feel the flag needed to be taken down?

Bree Newsome

On one hand there is a kind of general history that’s represented by the Confederate flag and then it resonated for me in a personal way. My ancestors were enslaved in South Carolina. I know their names. This is not something that’s abstract for me in any kind of way. I grew up with my grandmother who was raised in Greenville, who told me about her experiences seeing the Ku Klux Klan beat her neighbor and things like that. The massacre in Charleston brought a refocus on the flag.

Lottie Joiner

Why did you choose that day? Did President Obama’s call for the removal of the flag encourage you to do it or had you decided before then that you would take it down?

Bree Newsome

We [Charlotte activists] actually decided before. The Tuesday before [I scaled the pole] we had a meeting. There were about 10 to 12 of us activists who were on the ground that day involved in the action who, prior to the massacre happening in Charleston, had had previous conversations about how we would like to take the flag down in South Carolina, but it wasn’t a concrete plan. It was just something as people who had grown up in the Carolinas this was just something that has always been an issue.

I was riding down to Columbia to take the flag down when I was listening to [President Obama’s] eulogy and it only confirmed for me that we were doing the right thing — very much in the spirit of the history of civil disobedience and the history of the civil rights movement in this country. We were doing it very much with that historical awareness. This flag was raised in 1961 really as a statement against the civil rights movement that was going on at the time. Then here we were with a kind of new modern civil rights movement going on and here we are, this attack on a black leader in a church.

Lottie Joiner

How did you prepare for that day?

Bree Newsome

When we came together that Tuesday one of the people who had been in that conversation brought some other activists together who had a background in environmental activism, including a Greenpeace activist who had experience scaling trees. It was that Tuesday we had the meeting, when I agreed that I would do this. I asked everyone if I could just have a day. I didn’t want to talk with anyone. I knew that this was not only very dangerous, I knew that this could be life altering either way. It was something I really couldn’t talk to my family about. This was so secret what we were about to do so I took a day on Wednesday and then Thursday and Friday that was when I trained.

I worked with a Greenpeace activist and with James Tyson. He was the man who stood at the bottom of the pole when I scaled, kind of like the safety. He has a farm in South Charlotte, North Carolina, and he had a light post on his property, so we started on that but it was wider than we knew the actual flag pole would be. We tried lamp posts in a park a couple of times. We eventually did find a flagpole to practice on at a school. It really resembled what I would have to climb in South Carolina.

Lottie Joiner

You said you took a day to yourself before training. What did you do? Did you meditate? Did you listen to gospel music? Were you thinking about your ancestors, or were you thinking about the enormity of the task at hand? Did you ever think, “Maybe I shouldn’t do it, I want to back out?”

Bree Newsome

Everything that you mentioned, these were all things that were going through my mind. It was a mix of all of that because at the time that I agreed to do it I felt an overwhelming call. When we were in the house where they had the meeting, I stepped away to another room to really pray, to really read some scripture and pray even before I told them that I would volunteer to do that role. Then the next day, it was kind of like a wave of fear. I really thought about the enormity of it. I might have contacted one of the activists to talk about it again, and just to really make sure that I was very, very sure that this was what I wanted to do.

Upon reflecting on all of those things, I knew that I would regret it more if I had an opportunity to do this — which I felt was very much the right thing to do — and we had not done it. I honestly believe that the flag would still be up today had we not put that additional pressure on the state.

Lottie Joiner

I read that you recited the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 27 when you were taking the flag down. Tell me about that.

Bree Newsome

I had no doubt about the decision that I had made at the time, but that didn’t mean that I was oblivious to how dangerous it was and so it really did require faith on my part. I very much believe that God called me to scale the flagpole that day and I believe that God would bring me safely down. But faith is something that we practice, so even in that moment just praying and staying focused and calling out to God was very important.

Lottie Joiner

How did it feel holding that flag in your hand?

Bree Newsome

The only word that can come to mind for me is triumph. It was triumphant at that point, and I recognized just how powerful the symbolism of it all was. There was the actuality of it and then there was the symbolism of it. I could just feel like at that moment I really did symbolize the struggle. Like it wasn’t just Bree Newsome scaling the flagpole.

This was like the struggle of all these generations of black people to dismantle white supremacy. That’s what it felt like and that’s what I symbolized in that moment and I think that’s part of why it resonated so much with everyone because there were so many people who wanted to do that. So many people thought that flag and South Carolina’s refusal to lower the flag and so many people, I’m sure, were like, “Man, I wish I could just climb up there and just take it.” In that moment as people were watching me it was like we were all there selectively doing that.

It just felt triumphant. Even if they raise the flag back up again as they did, it was part of, I think, what put that final pressure on them that needed to go ahead and lower it. To have this moment where we demonstrate this agency as black people and I think in the same way that it demonstrated power and agency for the Greensboro Four to go and sit down at the Woolworth’s counter. “You’re saying we can’t sit here? We’re going to sit here.” You’re saying we can’t lower this flag? We are going to lower this flag today. It was just a feeling of triumph.

Lottie Joiner

I’ve heard you talk about this powerful image of a Black woman taking down the Confederate flag. Tell me about that.

Bree Newsome

There were other people who I think could have had the same courage, who believed as strongly. Everybody couldn’t risk being arrested or everybody wasn’t necessarily physically able to do it. That narrowed it down to about three of us. Of those three I was the only person of color. Of course at that point when we were looking at the situation I mean, we recognized like how powerful that is. Not just a visual of it, the visual image of the black woman scaling the pole, but of course as people learned who I was and I’m not just a symbol at that point.

I am a descendant of the people who for whom this flag represented enslavement. My ancestors were in South Carolina at the time when South Carolina seceded from the Union to fight this war to keep them enslaved. For me it was just powerful to represent all of that, you know? I don’t know any other way to put it and I just kind of remain humbled by it because it’s like, yes, it’s Bree Newsome scaling the flagpole but that moment was so much bigger than me. It really is. It represents so much more than me.

Lottie Joiner

You were arrested and jailed. How long were you in jail for taking the flag down?

Bree Newsome

I want to say about seven hours. It was probably around 7 in the morning when they took us to jail. I probably got out somewhere around like 4 o’clock that afternoon.

Lottie Joiner

What were your thoughts while you were in jail?

Bree Newsome

At first I thought we had accomplished the mission. The mission was to get this flag down. By the time we had been processed we’d already gotten word that the flag was back up and so at that point I was like, “Well, I don’t know how much of an impact it will make that we took this flag down but we took the flag down.”

In jail they had the TV on but they didn’t have the news on so we didn’t have any way to know what was going on. It really didn’t occur to me how much of an impact it had had until word started trickling through the guard. One guard came and told us that Dwayne Wade had offered to pay our bail and that’s when I was like, “Oh, wow.”

I had injured myself when I was going over the fence. James was helping me over the fence and at one point one of the spokes went into my right hand and so they were treating that when I was at the jail. So I’m talking with the nurse and that’s when she’s telling me how much commotion is going on around what we did. That’s how we were able to kind of find out that it really had made a big impact. It wasn’t until we were able to get out of jail to really see everything that was going on.

Lottie Joiner

What did your parents say?

Bree Newsome

My first interaction with my parents was after everything had calmed down so I kind of learned my parents’ initial reaction after the fact. I still feel bad to a certain extent just because of the stress that I put them through. Their first reaction was they thought that I had just gone down there by myself and that day had made the decision to scale the pole because I was actually supposed to be going to Columbia, Maryland, that weekend for my friend’s bridal shower. I couldn’t tell anybody because it was so secret what we were about to do.

It was shocking to everyone outside of the folks who knew what we were going to do to see me on TV. That’s where they found out about it. It was probably a couple hours between my parents finding out about it and then them really being able to talk to me.

My sister was the first person I called. She was in Augusta, Georgia, so she was able to come to Columbia. When I talked to my mom about it after the fact, I think her first reaction and her greatest fear was what’s going to happen to me in jail. She had this fear of like she didn’t know where I was and, obviously, I mean, you know how contentious the issue is. Just in New Orleans here recently they’ve had the folks who were hired to remove the monuments have had their cars fire-bombed.

I remember my mother’s words distinctly. She said, and this was when I was on the phone with her at the jail, “We love you, we support you, we just don’t want another martyr.” Again, this is just within a couple weeks of this massacre at Charleston. We just had a civil rights leader assassinated.

Lottie Joiner

It’s two years later. What do you remember most about that day?

Bree Newsome

I would have to say probably just the unique view that I had of being up on the pole and looking down at the police officers and just that moment. I just remember looking out at the building when I was holding the flag, you know? Just that feeling of unhooking the flag and holding it in my hand. That’s probably maybe the most visceral kind of memory that I had.

We were parked around the corner before we drove up and we had a couple folks out there who were jogging or pretending to be joggers so they could give us the heads up for when the police stepped away from the monument. We were sitting there in the back and I remember saying, “Like, wow, we’re about to make history.” We knew that. We knew it to a certain extent but it still. … History is still something that it’s like, it’s easier to understand in retrospect, you know?

Lottie Joiner

Recently, Confederate monuments have been removed in New Orleans and the names of Confederate soldiers and others are being taken off schools and government buildings in Southern states like Virginia. What are your thoughts on that?

Bree Newsome

I think it’s great, of course. It’s necessary and has to happen. It’s a sign of progress that cities and schools are removing these monuments, but there has to be education around it. We can’t think just because we removed these things then the problem is solved. We have to have an honest conversation about history and the history of slavery. Removing the flag in South Carolina was one thing, but racism exists in South Carolina as policy and social practice. We have to look at policy and how we are interacting with each other if we are going to address racism.

Lottie Joiner

Two years after you felt the flag in your hand, what are your thoughts on race relations today in the Trump era?

Bree Newsome

I don’t know. I see good things. I see bad things, right? I mean, Donald Trump’s whole rise to political power has been a racist reaction to Barack Obama. Whether we talk about it or not, that’s really what it represents. At the same time I see a lot of pushback. They are trying to roll out this agenda but there has been greater pushback to the agenda than I think that they were expecting, and the fact that the majority of Americans did not vote for him, that also kind of gives me hope.

I think we’re still in the thick of it. We still [have] a long ways to go. It’s by no means over and I would really argue that I think a lot of the movement that happened since the Trayvon Martin case to now, is in many ways just the beginning.

I tell folks Emmett Till happened in 1955. The Voting Rights Act didn’t get passed until 1965. We got to remember, we still got to push. When the Confederate flag came down people were like, “Oh, man. We won.” It’s this victory and it feels really good in that moment. It is a victory, but we still got a lot more battles to fight. We just got to pace ourselves.

Lottie Joiner is the interim editor-in-chief of The Crisis magazine and a Washington, DC-based freelance writer who covers race, social justice, civil rights, and culture. She has written for the Washington Post, USA Today, the Daily Beast, Time.com, TheAtlantic.com and Essence magazine.

Originally published at www.vox.com on June 27, 2017.

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I write about social justice issues, inequality, women, Black history and pop culture. I like to read, see and hear good storytelling that speaks to the soul.

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Lottie Joiner

Lottie Joiner

I write about social justice issues, inequality, women, Black history and pop culture. I like to read, see and hear good storytelling that speaks to the soul.

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