Students and members of the public packed Warren Wilson College’s Kittredge Community Arts Center this week to quiz activists Bree Newsome and Warren Wilson alumnus Jimmy Tyson about why they took down a Confederate Battle flag flying on the South Carolina Statehouse grounds this past June.
The speakers were attending a question-and-asnwer session as part of the school’s “Spotlight Series: My America, Whose America,” and in recognition of Constitution Day.
On June 27, weeks after a white gunman shot and killed nine African Americans during an evening prayer session in Charleston, Bree Newsome and Jimmy Tyson engaged in a direct-action protest against the South Carolina policy of flying the Confederate Battle flag on the statehouse grounds in Columbia. With Tyson, who is white, spotting her, Newsome, who is African American, climbed the pole and removed the flag. The flag’s removal was greeted by cheers from bystanders, and Tyson and Newsome’s swift detainment by police. Both activists were charged with “defacing monuments on state Capitol grounds,” a misdemeanor that could lead to three years in jail and a $5,000 fine. Released on bail, the two gained national media attention for their action.
Kittredge Theater was full by the time moderator Amy Knisley introduced the duo. Two microphone stands were positioned at each side of the stage, and after a few questions from Knisley, she opened floor for anyone to ask questions, many of which revolved around the duo’s motivations and intentions surrounding the action.
Newsome, a North Carolina resident, said she has regarded herself as a film artist for most of her life. It was only after the shooting of Trayvon Martin and public protests against North Carolina’s voter ID law that she began to identify herself as an activist. Though new to the role, Newsome, now 30, recalls her childhood, when a 2000 compromise resulted in the Confederate Battle Flag being moved from atop the South Carolina statehouse building to the grounds where it remained until 2015. The continued presence of the flag was seen by many like Newsome and Tyson as a symbol of the state’s support of white supremacy.
Newsome mentioned it was the 2015 Charleston white supremacist terror attack against an historically black African Methodist Episcopal church that finally spurred her to action. Dylan Roof, the terrorist who had attacked the church, was a fervent proponent of the white supremacist symbolism of the Confederate Battle flag (going so far as to include it in his “manifesto”). It deeply disturbed and angered her, Newsome said, that South Carolina government property would have a Confederate Battle Flag flying at full mast while the victims of South Carolinian racist violence were being laid to rest. It was at this point that she mustered the final gumption to climb the very same flag pole she remembered as a child and proclaim, “This flag comes down today.”
Newsome’s intention to take down the flag, was, she said, to “force a moral question” over the official use of a symbol that has been frequently used to represent anger and opposition to the desegregation of the South. After the attack by Dylan Roof, the South Carolina state government had begun to consider removing the flag from state grounds. South Carolina governor Nikki Haley even publicly advocated for its removal. Tyson said their action to remove the flag was to “force the hypocrisy of the state,” since they figured the flag would be quickly put back up despite the discussion of its removal. (The flag was, indeed, raised again 45 minutes after Newsome and Tyson took it down.)
Tyson, speaking as a white American, touched on how important it is for white people to join in this struggle. He said white indifference to the issue of racism is problematic, and that racism can not be overcome strictly through the actions of oppressed communities. He said white people’s place in the anti-racist struggle is one of support and working with people of color, not for them.
The two Charlotte residents touched on other subjects as well, including the importance of education including different historical narratives and explaining the origin of different symbols. Tyson, having graduated from Wilson in 2007, was keen to mention he felt honored to be back at the college that played a strong role in the forging of his political activism.
This article is scheduled to appear in a slightly different version on Warren Wilson College’s The Echo.