On June 27, 2015, Newsome climbed a 30-foot flag pole to rip down the Confederate flag that had flown in front of the South Carolina capital building for decades.
“The important thing to understand is the Confederate flag, that was there until recently, was raised in 1962 in response to the Civil Rights Movement. At that time there were a lot of students who were starting to do sit-ins, in protest of segregation and so in South Carolina they raised the flag up as the sign of defiance, like ‘This is still the Confederacy,'” said Newsome. “The main point of contention in the Civil War was slavery, and the fact that slavery was okay because African Americans were considered inherently inferior.”
Newsome explained that prior to her involvement in civil rights activism in North Carolina, she was living in New York as a filmmaker and an artist. Upon returning to North Carolina, where her family has lived for centuries, Newsome got involved in activism. It wasn’t until the Charleston church Massacre in 2015 (where Dylann Roof murdered nine black churchgoers) that it was clear to Newsome that the injustice and suffering of the past was far from over.
“There has been a long history of violence in the South. I had a great uncle who was lynched, my grandmother witnessed the Ku Klux Klan drag a neighbor out of his home and beat him. The thing that was so shocking about the Charleston Massacre was that it was a level of violence that I feel we haven’t really seen since the 60s. It was demoralizing and shocking, and a large part of my decision to tear down the flag was to show defiance to that kind of terrorism.”
In Newsome’s lecture discussing the necessity for people to be conscious of the culture that has been created in the aftermath of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, Newsome said that understanding how rights conflicts truly played out in American history, internalizing that race is a social construct and has no biological basis, and how this informs the present is crucial in working against racism.
“We have a lot of cultural awareness that America is a refuge for people fleeing from religious persecution, and every year we celebrate Thanksgiving and we tell those stories. But there’s a lot of things we aren’t conscious of, like the history of racial terrorism in the country. That’s why we have something like what happened in Charleston happen, people don’t recognize the significance of that. Racism operates in a lot of ways without people being conscious of it. You can’t address something you aren’t conscious of.”
Newsome’s analysis of modern racism continually comes back to the message that there can be no change and no progress in a society if people refuse to be educated and aware of injustice. The United States has taken many legal and legislative steps to prevent discrimination, but racism still persists if the internal, subconscious culture of subjugation does not end.
“Legal segregation is what we used to have and that no longer exists. However, you still see many schools that are clearly segregated which has a lot to do with issues of wealth and poverty. When Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, he was in the process of trying to begin the ‘second phase’ of the Civil Rights Movement, which was addressing the economic devastation that had been caused by slavery and Jim Crow. We never really were able to heal those gaps that existed between blacks and whites.”
In Newsome’s speech, she drove home the point that racism effects all parts of our society. Whiteness is still associated with being a first-class citizen while being part of a minority group, particularly being black, is associated with being second-class.
“I think it’s necessary to actively develop a consciousness of how racism affects us, even in our thoughts and our behaviors, and then carrying that consciousness into whatever space you go into.”
Ultimately, Newsome’s message is that of inclusion, understanding and equality for all people.
“We are the inheritors of a social tradition that said that wealthy white men who own things are fully human, and everyone else is some sort of lesser form. You are a human being, and as a human being there are rights that you should be entitled to. We are all equal regardless, and there is nothing that you can be or do that should diminish your humanity.”
While the issue of racism is often painful and triggers turbulent emotions, Newsome’s lecture was compassionate, honest and wise. Newsome used personal anecdotes and powerfully symbolic graphics to connect with her audience and get everyone on board with civil rights activism.
Follow Newsome on Twitter at @BreeNewsome to keep up with her and her work.