by Susan K. Smith
Ten days after Dylann Roof murdered eight people and their pastor at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Bree Newsome traveled to Columbia, the state capital, intent on shaking the smug complacency of white supremacy.
She had had enough, long before the tragic murders at the church, but this incident pushed her over the top. The Confederate flag, displayed in front of the State House, represented and sanctioned white supremacy, and Newsome and other activists (based in Charlotte, North Carolina)decided it had to come down. Someone would have to climb the pole and take the flag down, and the activists bantered some over who it would be. It was an integrated group of activists, and there were white people there who were willing to step up. They initially thought a man should climb the pole because of the physicality that would be required, but the conversation changed. Someone said it should be a woman, and when they said that, Bree got quiet. She began to pray and said she felt like God was talking to her. It needed to be a Black woman who still dealt with the trauma induced in her ancestors by the cruelty of white supremacy. After retreating into herself, asking God for God’s voice, she volunteered to climb the pole and take down the hated flag. For a couple of days after making the decision, she isolated herself, praying and reading scripture, and then she was ready.
She began to be trained by Greenpeace activists who had experience scaling trees, and by James Tyson, a farmer who had a light post on his property. She trained with deliberation and intentionality, climbing the pole on Tyson’s property and going to different locations, including schools and libraries, that had poles, becoming stronger and more familiar with what this climb would require of her. She knew that she would be in danger, and contemplated that as she trained, but would not give in to the fear.
On the day she was to take down the Confederate flag, she and other activists arrived early in the morning in Columbia, before the sun came up. Some of the activists posed as early morning joggers and were at the site, “running,” diverting the police officers who stood in front of the State Capitol building. When the police were distracted, Bree and Jim made their way to the fence that surrounded the building. As she scaled it, she injured her hand when she grabbed hold of one of the metal spokes and it went through her hand. It was painful but not enough to stop her. She got to the pole, put her helmet on, and with Tyson standing at the foot of the 30-foot pole, began to climb.
She knew she was in danger. She knew she could die, either by falling or by being shot by police, but she kept on climbing. That flag was the symbol of the hate that had affected her ancestors and infected a whole group of people since the country’s inception, so as she heard police calling for her to come down, she kept on climbing. She got to the top of the pole and took the flag off of its clip, and as she held it, she says she shouted, “You come against me with hatred, oppression, and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.”
She made it down the pole, the flag in her hand, and was arrested. It was done. She did not know what would happen to her or the flag, but she felt like her call from God had been answered. It was done.
She could have let fear – that which Howard Thurman says “…becomes the safety device with which the oppressed surround themselves in order to give some measure of protection from complete and nervous collapse.” He writes in Jesus and the Disinherited that fear “…becomes a form of life assurance, making possible the continuation of physical existence with a minimum of active violence.” And, he writes, “the threat of violence within a framework of well-nigh limited power is a weapon by which the weak are held in check.”Bree most likely felt that fear as she approached the fence, as she put on her helmet, and as she began her ascent, but she would not let the fear triumph over her faith. Neither the police nor the system would keep her “in check.” The flag in Columbia had been raised in 1961 as a protest against the emerging and growing Civil Rights Movement. It was meant to be a reminder to those who would protest that they were not in control, and Bree decided that they did not have the right to prevent Black people from fighting for freedom, justice, and full citizenship.
The flag came down.
Thurman wrote that “Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited. The fear was there, but what Bree says she realized is that she would have been deeply disappointed in herself had she given in to it. What she felt was a feeling of triumph. Fear did not stop her.
In spite of whatever fear we are holding onto, and for whatever reason, Bree’s lesson of leaning on faith and not fear is a lesson for us to ingest and digest. We get nowhere when we live in fear, and we certainly cannot and do not please God when we do it. We only get to see how God works with us when we lean into our faith and take risks.
God, in the end, really is our refuge and our strength, our very present help in trouble.
Ask Bree Newsome.
Amen and amen.