In 2015 civil rights activist Bree Newsome climbed the South Carolina state house flagpole and removed the Confederate flag. Since then, there has been a growing movement challenging confederate flags and monuments in public spaces that act as symbols of a white supremacy culture in America. Weeks ago in Charlottesville South Carolina, white supremacist groups held a rally and marched through the streets with torches. The next day a counter protest arose to stand against the groups, during which an alleged white nationalist drove a car into the counter protest, killing one woman and injuring many others.

On August 23rd, in her first public appearance since spring, Newsome visited a community college in Syracuse and reflected on her role in the current movement to remove Confederate monuments.

At the beginning of Newsome’s lecture she asked everyone to take a few deep breaths together a few times, and then she explained that this is what consciousness is about. Breathing is something that naturally happens whether we think about it or not. But taking time to reflect on the fact that it is currently happening here in this moment- within us and around us- is consciousness.

“Some things might be jarring for your comfort levels. We all need to learn to challenge ourselves,” Newsome says as she primes the audience for her presentation.

Relearning History

Newsome states that it wasn’t until college that she started learning an alternative version of history.

“I knew people were racist by my experience as a black woman living in a white supremacist world, but it wasn’t until college that I realized how the social systems reinforce these racist views into the world.”

Newsome spoke about how the concept that dark skin implied negative traits was a relatively modern phenomenon, and came about to justify the slave trade. Newsome spoke about how after the Confederacy and slavery in America ended, Jim Crow laws were created to continue to oppress black people in America. Newsome spoke about personal family history- about a distant uncle who was lynched for simply trying to vote, and another relative who witnessed the KKK beat another family member on the street. Newsome made it clear that we have not moved past that version of America, we are still living in it today.

The murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 evoked the memory of Emmett Till- killed in 1955. In 2013 the voting rights act made it harder for blacks, poor people and students to vote- reminiscent of the Jim Crow laws barring people of color from voting up until the 1960s. The nine people killed at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 parallels the four girls killed in a Birmington, Alabama church in 1963.

Newsome’s Social Activism

Newsome’s social activism came out a realization of this untold history and the institutional racism at play in America. To Newsome, the idea of the Confederacy means the existence of slavery. Some people interpret the Confederate flag in a different way, but this is either deliberate misinterpretation or miseducation. After the Civil War, the Confederate flag went out of use in popular culture, until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. During that time, the flag was brought back as a symbol of anti-civil rights movement.

Speaking about her decision to climb the pole and take the confederate flag down, Newsome states:
“It was never about that specific flag. It was about the movement and abolishing the spirit of hatred and oppression in all its forms.”

Civil rights activist Bree Newsome speaking at the community college in Syracuse.
Civil rights activist Bree Newsome speaking at the community college in Syracuse.

Newsome stated that the officers were threatening to taser her as she climbed the pole. Because the pole was metal, if they had tasered her she might have been electrocuted. An alleged white ally grabbed the bottom of the pole and said if they were going to electrocute her, they would have to do it to him as well. Newsome says this is what true white allyship should look like, literally putting one’s bodies on the line for one another.

“Some people say that the current civil rights movement is a leaderless movement, but I say it’s a leader-full movement. Everyone can help lead the world toward a just society, and apply what skills they have,” Newsome remarks.

When asked about where she found the courage to take down the flag that day, Newsome is clear:
“I’ve fought for social justice to the point of putting my own body on the line. Why? I’ve examined what’s at stake if I don’t do that…. I couldn’t wait. We’ve been waiting for over 100 years for racial justice and equality in South Carolina.”

Stay Woke/Keep on Waking Up

Newsome points out that we’re in a time of turmoil right now in the US, but we don’t have to fear it. We’re currently sowing the seeds of change in the US, and it’s a time to embrace the transformation. Not everyone needs to be a frontline activist because justice doesn’t come only in the streets. She explained that we need to work toward a human rights framework to address systemic injustice as a country.

Newsome spoke about the recent trend of the phrase “stay woke,” and how it’s another word for consciousness raising. Consciousness means learning to be aware of history, how it is at work in modern society and what inspires us to change society and our own consciousness.

Newsome shares some organizing advice to the people in the audience:
“Don’t let the purpose get lost in the process. Ask the question, what does it mean to be human, and how does that inform how we interact with one another and shape society. I believe the measure of my humanity should be linked to my understanding of the humanity of others. That’s the cause greater than myself that I risked my life for in 2015. Courage is not the absence of fear, but it is the belief in something greater than fear.”

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