Bree Newsome, a Christian activist from North Carolina, climbed into history last year when she scaled the flagpole of the South Carolina state house and removed the longstanding Confederate flag. One year later, Sojourners caught up with Newsome, an honoree at The Summit 2016, on what her action helped bring down — and build up.
Catherine Woodiwiss, Sojourners: What’s it like one year on from being at the top of that flagpole?
Bree Newsome, activist: I think maybe the main thing that has changed is my perspective. I think I’m really recognizing that this a marathon race that we’re in, basically. In many different ways, in terms of the fight for equality.
And on a personal level, in terms of my spiritual walk. We often talk of the marathon that we run in the course of our faith. It took a lot of prayer and faith and courage and inner strength for me to do the action of climbing the pole, and it took a lot of energy. I was so full at the time, coming on the heels of the massacre [in Charleston, S.C.], and feeling such a combination of grief and fear — we were all feeling it at the time — and wanting so much to overcome that with a display of love, in defiance of the fear I was feeling. But a year out, there's still so much work to be done. And a lot of the work to be done is not these grand-scale actions or big moments. A lot of it is the daily act of ministering. The daily act of basically being in my community — whereas the action was this big symbolic gesture, you know, what it means in terms of racial solidarity with me scaling the pole and James sitting there at the bottom spotting me — and seeing how we do that in our actual day-to-day work.
Woodiwiss: The shootings in Orlando, Fla., happened right around the anniversary of the Charleston massacre and your action. Was that demoralizing?
Newsome: I don’t know if i would say that it was demoralizing, but more recognizing that we’re still in it. The last time I really felt so demoralized in terms of the gun issues was Newtown [Conn.]. And when I saw no real change after Newtown, that’s kind of when it sank in in terms of how difficult this was going to be. Obviously there are slightly different issues [at play in the Charleston and Orlando shootings], but in terms of the violence we’re seeing in the country right now — to see that kind of horror and the lack of response, that’s when it kind of sank in for me that this was a long-haul battle.
Woodiwiss: And you chose to climb the flagpole anyway, which I think is really wonderful. What are some of the things that came down with the flag? What’s been dismantled in the last year?
Newsome: I’m seeing a real re-examination of history. Not just that, but we’re really kind of talking about, “Ok, how are we remembering history?” We took the Confederate flag down, and there was a lot of talk of taking Confederate monuments down — before we did the flag action, people had started tagging monuments with “Black Lives Matter.” So what I’m seeing in the past year is really the conception that we don’t need to erase history. It’s not enough to remove the Confederate flag, because it’s important to acknowledge that it was there. It’s important to understand why this flag was first raised in 1962, and why it was there for so long, because that is really going to inform our understanding of this present moment and how we go forward. ... We’re experiencing so many demographic changes right now, which is beautiful, but there’s a certain racist xenophobic backlash we’re seeing that is rooted in a certain history and pattern in the country. It's important that we be aware in the present moment of those connections to the past, so we don’t make those same mistakes that have been made in the past.
I also see a greater intersectionality across movements. Back a year ago it was really, you know, here’s a Black Lives Matter movement, we had an immigrants rights movement going on for a long time, a reproductive rights movement, all these different movements going on. Here in North Carolina, we had the Moral Mondays movement going on which was a bringing together of these various progressive movements, but it was mostly the state level where that was happening. What I’m seeing in the past year is a great recognition that there is this connection between all of these different struggles, and I’m seeing a greater solidarity building. So to put it in terms of what I see being torn down, it would be these walls or anything that separates these different movements.
Woodiwiss: What are some of the things being built in their place?
Newsome: Well, I think we are building solidarity. Just the understanding of intersectionality — that's something that has really come up with the rise of Black Lives Matter, and since Ferguson. What I’ve seen develop since [the Trayvon Martin case] is this real discussion of intersectionality: “We have to look at the ways that poverty intersect with race, the way that poverty intersects with the undocumented community, the way that all of these things intersect with the criminal justice system and mass incarceration and police brutality and the fight for fair wages.”
What I’ve seen being built up is kind of a collective language for understanding this. And greater efforts for cross-movement understanding. We’re really trying to, for example, draw the connection between mass incarceration and the experience by undocumented people, and mass incarceration as it is typically experienced by African Americans.
That kind of building — of solidarity — is really important.
Woodiwiss: What you’re saying about the big burst of action versus the daily lived work — it sounds like you’re thinking of faith and action almost as strength-training. Can you say more about that? What it’s like to shift from maybe a sprinting mentality to a long-distance approach to advocacy, and faith?
Newsome: Yeah, absolutely. So just in terms of physical preparation for scaling the pole — it happened in such a short period of time. I think it was a Tuesday that this all came together, and Saturday when we took it down. In that time it was sprint mode, you know, moment to moment — “What must be done to take down this flag?” Sprinting is direct action, which is very important! Being a morale-booster and a rallying point for the movement was another reason we did it… You know, “We have to keep going.” But once I come down off the pole and I’m back in the community and it’s time to keep going, that's when I have to get back in the marathon mindset. And that's daily prayer, that’s asking the Lord, “What is set out for me today?”
When I have traveled and spoken to groups, a lot of times the question I get is, “What can I do? How can I become an activist?” And a lot of times the image of activism is climbing the flagpole, being arrested — very dramatic. But I really try to remind people that a lot of the most important work is the daily work of trying to organize the community, and it’s not as flashy or exciting. It's much more of the marathon work of change. But that’s where the change really happens.
Woodiwiss: What’s giving you hope and courage to continue fighting?
Newsome: I truly believe that we are all children of God. I truly do believe that there is a forward movement to the universe, that, like Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — I really do believe that. And not only as a matter of my faith — I also look at history, and I think history supports the fact that when we push towards freedom, we get there.
We can look at how far we have come from where we started, just in this nation alone, but you can also look at examples throughout history. Yes, it can be agonizingly slow — part of why we become activists is because society never makes progress quickly enough for those of us who truly believe in equality, and justice, and fairness, and freedom, and all of these values that certain people have been fighting for for centuries.
I really view my place in the current movement as being part of a struggle of humanity over a long period of time. Understanding, what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have rights? And moving towards democratic societies, moving towards societies that are fair.