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Activist who took down Confederate flag drew on her faith and on new civil rights awakening

Bree Newsome walks behind a police officer after her arrest.
Brittany "Bree" Newsome is arrested after the Confederate flag was removed from a pole at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., on June 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Adam Anderson *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-NEWSOME-FAITH, originally transmitted on July 13, 2015.
Bree Newsome walks behind a police officer after her arrest.

Brittany “Bree” Newsome is arrested after the Confederate flag was removed from a pole at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., on June 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Adam Anderson *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-NEWSOME-FAITH, originally transmitted on July 13, 2015.

HOT SPRINGS, N.C. (RNS) As she prepared for her mission — scaling the 30-foot flagpole outside the South Carolina Statehouse to bring down the Confederate flag — Bree Newsome reread the biblical story of David and Goliath.

A youth organizer with Ignite NC, a nonprofit group challenging voting laws, Newsome appeared briefly to raucous cheers Saturday (July 11) on the main stage of the Wild Goose Festival after speaking to a smaller crowd at the four-day camp revival that celebrates spirituality, arts and justice.

The 30-year-old activist, a dedicated Christian, drew on the biblical story of the Hebrew shepherd boy who slays a giant with a sling and a stone.

“I don’t even feel like it was my human strength in that moment,” said Newsome. “I’m honestly just so humbled.”

On June 27, Newsome climbed the flagpole to remove the Confederate battle flag, a symbol that represents for many a war to uphold slavery and, later, a battle to oppose civil rights advances.

Her action came 10 days after the mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, S.C., in which nine participants of a Bible study, including the pastor were killed.

Bree Newsome speaks during Wild Good Festival 2015. Photo by Steve Mann, courtesy of Wild Goose Festival

Bree Newsome speaks during Wild Good Festival 2015. Photo by Steve Mann, courtesy of Wild Goose Festival

She was charged with defacing a monument, a misdemeanor, according to a statement from the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, and could face a fine of up to $5,000 and up to three years in prison.

On Friday, the Confederate flag was lowered for good after state legislators signed a bill authorizing its removal.

For Newsome, it was a step too late.

“Why did people have to die for people to realize the state had been promoting hate with this symbol?” she asked.

Newsome grew up hearing her grandmother’s story of her black neighbor brutally beaten by Ku Klux Klan members because he was a doctor who treated a white woman. She told of ancestors who came through Charleston’s slave market and others who died in lynchings.

Invited to speak to the mostly white audience long after the festival schedule was set, Newsome joined a roster of speakers on the theme of “Blessed Are the Peacemakers,” a nod to the nonviolent activism of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

This year’s gathering honored the festival’s “Fairy Godmother” Phyllis Tickle, the Christian author and editor diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. Speakers included Ferguson Commission member Traci Blackmon, Moral Monday founder William Barber, and immigrant advocate Alexia Salvatierra.

“We were in the presence of history,” poet Merrill Farnsworth said of Newsome’s appearance. “I was really glad to catch a glimpse of the person who did this.”

The daughter of a Baptist minister and onetime president of Shaw University in Raleigh, Newsome said she felt a calling into a new civil rights campaign following the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, a killing she likened to the death of Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old boy mutilated in 1955 after allegedly flirting with a white woman.

After the police killing of Michael Brown in Missouri last year, Newsome helped to convene The Tribe, a grassroots collective dedicated to community building.

Her actions at the South Carolina Statehouse grew out of what she calls her “crisis of faith” following the Emanuel shootings.

“This is like 9/11 to me,” Newsome said. “I see people just going about their daily lives. I can’t do that. I can’t function.”

On one hand, she said, the victims’ families quick forgiveness of accused killer Dylann Roof was a “rare display of Christ-like behavior.”

Pall bearers release white doves over the casket of Ethel Lance as she is buried at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church cemetery in North Charleston, South Carolina on June 25, 2015.  Lance is one of the nine victims of the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FAITH-FORGIVE, originally transmitted on June 25, 2015.

Pallbearers release white doves over the casket of Ethel Lance as she is buried at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church cemetery in North Charleston, S. C., on June 25, 2015. Lance is one of the nine victims of the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Brian Snyder
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-FAITH-FORGIVE, originally transmitted on June 25, 2015 or RNS-NEWSOME-FAITH, originally transmitted on July 13, 2015.

On the other hand, she said, forgiving too easily has helped perpetuate racist systems.

Speaking to some 300 people who crowded into the festival’s Spirituality Tent, she said she preferred action.

“Jesus is one of the biggest agitators that ever lived,” she said. “The only time Jesus was in the temple was when he’s flipping stuff over and stirring things up.”

Activists from Charlotte, N.C., had already been planning to remove the flag and had taken photos of the pole in preparation when they asked Newsome to join. They talked about the symbolic power of having a black woman remove the flag.

“Hollywood’s created plenty of white heroes,” said activist James Ian Tyson, who appeared alongside Newsome Saturday and spoke of his role that day — kneeling on the ground so she could climb onto his back and over the four-foot fence surrounding the flagpole.

Newsome said it wasn’t an easy decision to climb the pole. She was afraid for her life and asked her sister, whom she described as a “prayer warrior,” to pray for her.

Her faith helped her overcome her fear. She recounted an argument with a police officer that ordered her down.

“You’re doing the wrong thing,” she said the officer told her.

Clergy lay on the ground in Clayton, Mo., the morning after unrest on Nov. 24, 2014 in response to the announcement that Ferguson, Mo., officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted. Photo courtesy of Lilly Fowler

Photo courtesy of Lilly Fowler

Clergy lay on the ground in Clayton, Mo., the morning after unrest on Nov. 24, 2014 in response to the announcement that Ferguson, Mo., officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted.

At that moment, she said, she remembered her reading of David and Goliath.

And she kept repeating the 27th Psalm: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” as she descended the pole.

“If we really want to work for a peaceful society, we have to agitate,” she said. “Until the people in power have to deal with you, they won’t.”

Newsome recalled figures like Rosa Parks, whose acts of civil disobedience led to gains in racial equality. She said she hopes for a day when black people won’t have to face obstacles to voting, endure underfunded schools or fear losing their lives at the hands of police.

“This to me feels like the beginning,” she said.

Still, festival organizers provided an eight-person security detail to make sure no one tried to infiltrate the Hot Springs Resort grounds to harm the pair.

At an interview after her talk, festival producer Rosa Lee Harden introduced Newsome to Blackmon, a pastor helping people in Ferguson respond to the Brown shooting. The pair embraced quietly and Blackmon broke into tears as she thanked the young activist.

“You lit my fire,” Blackmon said.

“Y’all lit my fire in Ferguson,” Newsome said.

“God is a God of liberation,” she added. “I know that he heard my great-great-grandmother in South Carolina when she was praying for her children to be free, and we’re going to keep praying until we’re all free.”

YS/AMB END DECONTO

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Jesse James DeConto

19 Comments

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  • The symbolic gesture of taking down the Confederate flag from the Confederate memorial in Columbia SC will do very little to correct the problems we face. The biggest problem with the black community is the breakdown of the traditional family. The sad reality is that over 85% of black kids are born to single mothers. That is a recipe for failure, as there is no father in the house to instill discipline, morals, manners, etc., and when kids raise themselves, the problem only worsens. Of course this is not specific to the black communities, but it is very bad there. It will only improve once the traditional family returns. And when that happens, our society will have a better future, one that is focused on God, and neighbor. And Ms. Newsome (see article) should now focus her efforts in a way that will have more long lasting results: the return of the traditional family, and a complete uninhibited return to God. We can all learn from those families how forgiveness quells the Devil.

  • Tieta, we need to distinguish between mortal sin, and venial sin. John wrote about it in the Bible: 1John 5:16-17 “If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal”
    Most of the sins against morality are mortal, or sins of death (hell), venial sins will send a soul to Purgatory (1Cor. 3:13-15).

  • Tieta I should have said “unrepented” venial sins. And you are correct, Abraham’s bosom no longer exists, but Purgatory has been understood in the Church since the First Century. And the Bible is clear on it: Luke 12:58-59: “As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out till you have paid the very last copper.”
    This parable is an allusion to judgment after death. Also read 1Cor. 3:13-15 very slowly and carefully.
    The Early Church Fathers, Cyprian for example speak of it: “…when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has paid the uttermost farthing…It is one thing, tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire… ;another to be at once crowned by the Lord.” (Letters 51:20 [253 AD]).

  • Greg1-We can just agree to disagree but there’s no purgatory! Once
    the person goes to hell the judgment is final and thanks for feedback.

  • I, for one, will be ecstatic when ALL FALSE RELIGION is done away with. If you claim to be a Christian but you willfully break the law(s) then you have taken a stand against God who allows the secular authorities to rule for the time being.
    Romans 13:1-2 Let every person be in subjection to the superior authorities, for there is no authority except by God; the existing authorities stand placed in their relative positions by God. 2 Therefore, whoever opposes the authority has taken a stand against the arrangement of God; those who have taken a stand against it will bring judgment against themselves.
    God is a lover of justice. He will see that justice is served. It’s not our place to force God’s hand or plans…

  • Thank you for helping to illustrate the folly of biblical morality.

    By your logic – the logic of the Bible, in your view – participants in the abolitionist movement to end slavery prior to the U.S. Civil War also were rebels against your god’s will. Likewise, those who challenged feudal monarchs, who fought in the Crusades, who fought against Nazi, Fascist, and Communist regimes, and tyrants too numerous to mention, all ran afoul of your biblical injunction against taking a stand against unjust government. In your view, they brought judgment on themselves for taking a moral stand where your god remained silent, in tacit support of any and all governments, regardless of their moral virtue (or lack thereof).

    So again, thank you for reminding us all that the Bible is no proper guide to morality.

  • John Oliver put it best in describing people celebrating the taking down of the flag. Its one of those things which is both an achievement but kinda shameful that it took so long. Like a 50 year old losing their virginity. 🙂

  • Flag and truck it was on is private property. The statehouse and the flag on are not private property. Big difference. Learn your laws and the application of them. The person on the truck had many rights violated by the vandal who went after him.

  • Greg,
    I am not a Christian. I am a Sikh. This young lady performed an act of love. For me the act of civil-disobedience she performed was focused on G-O-D. I understand you have a very conservative of how you view the world, the nation, and faith. Ms. Newsome is a bold Christian, acting with devotion. Her actions were fearless. Her action was G-O-D.As for the “devil”, you may remember Jesus said _”….lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. G-O-D is the Doer. All action, no mater for love or hate is G-O-D. The devil is your mind which doesn’t see God in her action. She was praying as she ripped that flag from its mast. Its not flag coming down which will solve the ills of mankind, but its faith like Ms. Newsome. Its fearlessness and devotion, commitment of one’s faith which opens the heart and conquers the mind. The dialogue happening now is about healing the Soul of a Nation. G-O-D has arranged this and the 9 who sacrificed their lives opened the door to this…

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