[image-3] A lone Confederate battle flag waved outside of Sottile Theatre as civil rights activist Bree Newsome spoke inside. A portion of George Street, closed to traffic and filled with police and SLED agents separated the handful of Secessionist Party members protesting against Newsome’s visit from more than 100 counter protesters standing in opposition to the flag’s presence.
Early in the evening, local Black Lives Matter organizer Muhiyidin d’Baha leapt across the yellow police tape to momentarily snatch the Confederate flag from the hands of a Secessionist demonstrator. He was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Inside the theater, Newsome, who gained widespread notoriety for pulling down the Confederate flag that flew outside the South Carolina Statehouse following the shooting at Emanuel AME Church, spoke about her own experience with the flag during a lecture titled “Tearing Hatred from the Sky.”
In the less than five months following the massacre of nine black parishioners inside Mother Emanuel by a white supremacist and the removal of the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds, the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked more than 350 pro-Confederate flag rallies in the United States. South Carolina’s Secessionist Party has recently strengthened their efforts to display the flag throughout Charleston, largely in response to Newsome’s visit. Almost as soon as she began speaking inside of the Sottile Theatre, the small group of Secessionists outside slowly furled their flag, which was met with chants of “Racist, go home.”
“I seem to have caused a bit of a stir coming into town,” Newsome said as she took the stage, before describing the moment when she became conscious of the racial constructs in the United States.
“The summer of 2013 was a pivotal time in the awakening of my personal consciousness. I had recently returned to North Carolina after serving as artist in residence at Saatchi and Saatchi ad agency in New York City. It was during that summer that my family came here to Charleston, S.C., and visited the Old Slave Mart Museum,” Newsome said. “A small building that was once part of a much larger complex in which enslaved Africans were auctioned off like cattle. I stood there with my family and concentrated on the unbearable thought of being taken to another place where I might never see them again.”
Newsome later discussed Dylann Roof’s attack on Mother Emanuel. She was quick to point out that Roof had traveled to Charleston from Columbia, where since 1961 a Confederate flag had flown outside of the statehouse.
“Being a child of the South myself and descended from a family that had been in the Carolinas for hundreds of years, the meaning of the Confederate flag was never lost on me,” she said. “South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union, saying that, quote: ‘We of the South contend that slavery is right.’”
After decades of resistance against the flag’s presence, state lawmakers would eventually vote to remove it from outside the capitol building — but not before Newsome would take actions into her own hands. She trained for a day and a half to learn how to scale the flagpole outside of the Statehouse. She was prepared to be arrested. She felt this was a necessary statement to make. Recalling when she met with the fellow activists who would eventually aid her in removing the flag, Newsome said they could no longer wait for state leaders to remove the flag. One key decision that she recalls the group making was who out of the 10 or so willing participants would actually be the one to pull the flag from its mast.
“I think everyone wanted to do this … But there were practical things to consider. First of all, who could physically do it. Who had the time to train. And who could risk being arrested. There were simply some people who could not take that risk,” Newsome said. “Once that narrowed it down to three people, and I was the only person of color among them, we recognized the power of that image, of having a black woman scale the pole and commit this action.”