Duo who removed the Confederate Flag from South Carolina’s capitol tell their story

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.

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12 thoughts on “Duo who removed the Confederate Flag from South Carolina’s capitol tell their story

  1. John Penley

    One does not have to travel very far from the Warren Wilson campus to see the effects of Institutional Racism and a past history of Segregation in Western North Carolina. A walk around Downtown Asheville’s booming Tourist Area and a look at the shops, restaurants, bars, hotels, the Asheville Police and Fire Departments makes it very clear that a severe lack of diversity in hiring and discrimination is still very much the reality here in present day Asheville.

    • hauntedheadnc

      That, and the fact that the Black population of Asheville continues to drop by the year. This is partly because of an influx of new residents who are almost uniformly rich and white, which dilutes what diversity there was here. It’s also partly because Black residents are moving away to someplace where they might actually stand a chance of making a decent wage and not have to work a job kissing tourists’ asses. Asheville prides itself on being a lot of things, such as creative and diverse, that it actually isn’t, and it doesn’t seem especially interesting in fixing that.

      • Jaded Local

        ” Asheville prides itself on being a lot of things, such as creative and diverse, that it actually isn’t”

        Asheville is diverse only in that some of the lesbians here have tattoos and some don’t. For those championing “diversity” here that seems to be enough. For those who genuinely care about a diverse community the drop in the overall percentage of the population that is black — due to the dilution you mention — should be of a concern.

        Oh, another thing: “Keep Asheville Weird?” Please. Asheville really isn’t all that weird.

        • Big Al

          Oh, we have diversity. For every lesbian (tattooed or not) there are ten straight fatties who cannot content themselves with natural ugliness but go on to pierce and tattoo every inch of their cellulite.

          Yum.

          • hauntedheadnc

            So… To judge from your comments, you have a problem with lesbians, you have a problem with anyone who does not dress as though they’ve stepped out of an episode of Mad Men, you have a problem with fat people, and you have a problem with people who have tattoos and/or piercings.

            Tell me, exactly who is so elite as to win the Big Al seal of approval?

      • Big Al

        What “influx of new residents who are almost uniformly rich..”? All I see moving here are poor white hipsters who think “Beer City” promised them Eden, then complain when they only get minimum wage, crappy housing and overpriced boutique groceries. That and smelly bums and talentless buskers (same thing, really) who come to prey on the foot traffic of tourists with vacation money.

        “Beer City”? More like “Bum City”.

          • Big Al

            1) Where did you get the notion that I “have a problem with lesbians”? I can’t tell who they like to cuddle with, but I do note that this town is full of women who already get ugly the all-natural way (by eating too much and exercising too little) who then mutilate themselves with tattoos and piercings. That they think is attractive is to me a sign of a mental disorder. Yes, I DO have a problem with that.

            Not elitism, just Common F-ing Sense.

            2) What houses do the hipsters buy? This blog is saturated with whining about how poor the housing is, and MtnX constantly reports on how little housing is available and how the working-class are having to subdivide already tiny houses and apartments (often illegally) to find a place to live.

            My solution to this is simple: hipsters should stop moving here without researching the situation first.

            I moved here during the recession when housing was more available but it was still crap. BEFORE I moved here, I made sure I had the good job needed to pay for the higher cost of living and the financial reserves to hold me until I found the housing that I needed without having to break the law or worry about eviction.

            Again, Common F-ing Sense.

            It seems I am the exception. I hear so many newcomers arrive flush with excitement about the ” hip vibe” of “Beer City”, only to find themselves short of everything AND later squeezed out entirely by gentrification.

            So no, I do not sympathize with their pre-arrival stupidity or their post-settlement self-righteousness.

            Common F-ing Sense. Grow some.

          • hauntedheadnc

            1.) Sounds like a personal problem to me. It always is when you get offended by someone else doing something else that does not affect you in the slightest.

            2.) You didn’t answer the question. Who buys the houses? You know as well as I do that developers don’t build anything for anyone who actually works here and makes an Asheville wage. They chase the luxury market, so who is buying what they’re building?

            I’ll give you a hint. If you’ll recall, the original point is that Asheville wasn’t that diverse to begin with, and is becoming less so as rich white out-of-towners move in.

    • The Real World

      “makes it very clear that a severe lack of diversity in hiring and discrimination is still very much the reality here in present day Asheville.”

      John – your statement is very accusatory as well as void of reality. Do you know what percentage of the population in Buncombe Co. is African American? Less than 7% ; Hispanic/Latino is 6.5% and Asian is 1.2%(Source: Census.gov)

      I’ll let you do the math on how many white or mixed race there are to equal 100%. Good grief, you can’t hire what isn’t here! The lack of ethnic diversity is no one’s fault, it’s the way the world is. There are non-diverse cities and countries all over the world. Travel and you’ll see.

      There are no laws that keep non-white people out of AVL.

      • Big Al

        “The lack of ethnic diversity is no one’s fault..”

        Yes, it is. The fault is with the young, WHITE hipsters who move here to take the jobs that the blacks don’t. This forces the blacks to move away to find jobs (that probably pay better, but that is irrelevant).

        Shame on you for being so racisty racist, you “progressive” white hipsters!

  2. Jeff Fobes

    If you want to debate Asheville’s diversity, or lack thereof, it needs to be on a post that is on that topic.

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