On June 27, 2015 Brittany Ann Byuarium “Bree” Newsome burst into the national spotlight in the wake of the racial murders at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston when she scaled the 30-foot flagpole of the South Carolina capitol building to take down the flag. The Confederate battle flag had been proudly shown by the murderer as he posted on-line about his intentions that led to the deaths of 9 people in the church during a Bible study, including the pastor Rev. Clementa Pinckney who was also a South Carolina State Senator.
Following the killings there was debate over taking down the flag with various white leaders, including a Presidential candidate, speaking about the flag reflecting “our culture.” Bree Newsome climbed the flag pole, took down the flag, was arrested, and changed the entire nature of the debate.
She was not acting alone. She was part of a community in Charlotte, North Carolina that carefully planned their action. They decided that a black woman should be the one to take down the flag with a white man to assist her over the fence. They would symbolize that their action transcended race and gender. James Ian Tyson guarded the fence to give her space and time to ascend to the flagpole. “We made this decision because for us, this is not simply about a flag, but rather it is about abolishing the spirit of hatred and oppression in all its forms,” Newsome said.
Her father Clarence Newsome had been Dean at Howard University’s School of Divinity. The elder Newsome is now the President of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. So Bree Newsome has a strong heritage of ethics and passion for freedom.
She also didn’t “come out of nowhere.” In 2003 Newsome was named on of the “20 coolest girls in America” by YM magazine. She also was a film producer, beginning as a student. Newsome has won a number of awards for her work including Best Short Film at the BET Urban World Film Festival, which led to her work being shown at Cannes among other film festivals.
But as she faced the limitations of racism her activism grew. She said, “The space that exists for many of us, as a young black girl, is so extremely limited so that you really can’t go very far without being an activist, without being in defiance of something.” In 2013 she was arrested during a sit-in at the North Carolina House Speaker’s office in protest of that state’s voter ID law.
As Newsome climbed the flagpole a police officer called for her to come down. She responded, “In the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down. You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” Then as she touched down with the flag in her hand she offered herself to be arrested and quoted Psalm 23. Tyson was also arrested. She released a statement that said, “We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer. We can’t continue like this another day. It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.” Shortly after her arrest the flag was raised again at the State House.
Newsome and Tyson were charged with defacing monuments on capitol grounds, and bail was set at $3,000. Newsome’s action so galvanized the country that over $60,000 was raised with many celebrities offering to pay all her costs. While some South Carolina legislators criticized her, others across the nation spoke of her as a new Rosa Parks. Newsome said about her action, “I did it for all the fierce black women on the front lines of the movement and for all the little black girls who are watching us. I did it because I am free.” She went on to say, “I see no greater moral cause than liberation, equality and justice for all God’s people. What better reason to risk your own freedom than to fight for the freedom of others?”
On July 9th the South Carolina legislature voted to take down the flag, which was lowered the next day.