Activist Bree Newsome speaks of racial inequality

The University of Indianapolis began its spring Diversity Lecture Series on Feb. 17. The first speaker of the series, activist and artist Bree Newsome, talked about what brought her to become an activist in her lecture called, “Tearing Hate from the Sky.”

Newsome said at first she had not meant to become an activist when she made her now famous climb up the flagpole.

“I didn’t even have any plans to be an activist,” Newsome said. “I didn’t even know what an organizer was or did.”

Growing up in a diverse community, Newsome said she frequently was exposed to racial inequality. Newsome was very aware of the achievement gap in the education system that her parents, who were teachers, worked so hard to try to close. Always politically aware of her surroundings and the social issues in her community, Newsome said she knew about the cultural inequality around her but was not exactly sure what she could do to help change it.

Photo by Cassie Reverman
Bree Newsome speaks about her involvement in taking down the Confederate flag in front of the South Carolina state house and her involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement. Photo by Cassie Reverman

After graduating from New York University, she returned home to Charleston, S.C. While visiting the Old Slave Mart Museum, she was curious about what it was like to be one of the slaves who had been sold there years ago. Then in February of 2013, a young black teen, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed. Newsome said this was the moment when she realized that something needed to be done, and that propelled her into becoming an activist. Newsome joined in the movements across the state of South Carolina.

In the summer of 2015, tragedy struck Charleston, Newsome said. During the evening prayer service on June 17, nine people were killed by a gunman in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Newsome said that hearing about this tragic event and then seeing the shooter burn the American flag while waving the Confederate flag was her defining moment. To Newsome and many of her followers, the Confederate flag represented slavery and Jim Crow laws and was basically untouchable. While watching the American flag burn, she said she knew some action needed to be taken.

A group of activists from across the country came together to figure out what they could do about this situation. The group decided that the Confederate flag, which they all found offensive, needed to come down. They had decided that a black woman would take down the flag, and a white man would stand guard to protect her. Newsome and her colleague, James Tyson, volunteered and the flag was taken down on June 27.

“I prayed on it a lot,” Newsome said. “I really prayed before I made that decision, and I just really felt that it was my calling to do that for that moment in time. I really felt that strong sense of peace as I was going up. I prayed as I was climbing the pole.”

After she had lowered the flag and climbed down the pole, Newsome and her colleague Tyson were arrested. According to Newsome, multiple people—such as Dwyane Wade, Michael Moore, Tom Rutherford and many others—offered to pay the bail or any legal fees that might arise from their actions.

Even though Newsome managed to take down the flag that afternoon, she said it was back, flying in the wind, 45 minutes to an hour after she was arrested.

Senior social work major Nikki Nale said that Newsome’s actions made a lasting impression on history.

“Any action, big or small, will have an impact on this, like she [Newsome] said, she [was] getting into the community, starting small and doing big things,” Nale said. “Approaching it from all levels is going to make a huge impact, because someone is going to see that, and it’s going to inspire them. Whether it’s one person or a hundred, she’s definitely making an impact.”

Area Coordinator for the university and Senior Residence Director of Campus Life Timeshia Keys said that for Bree Newsome to come speak at UIndy was important.

“I thought it [Newsome’s lecture] was necessary,” Keys said. “I think that in the time that we are living in, it’s important for our students to be aware of what’s happening in our society around us—(not just in our personal community, but what’s happening in our country)—and … aware of the current things that are affecting us and have been affecting us for many years. And they just haven’t been aware for all of the movements and the things that have been occurring in the country.”

The Diversity Lecture Series continues with guest speaker Brian Banks giving his lecture, “The Power of Choice” on March 2 at 9 p.m. in UIndy Hall A.