Activist Bree Newsome gave a lecture addressing racism in America as part of a speaker series sponsored by the University of Richmond Chaplaincy on Tuesday night in the Alice Haynes Room.
Newsome is most recognized for her act of non-violence when she climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina Capitol and lowered the Confederate battle flag in response to the 2015 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Newsome’s lecture was a part of the Sylvester Spirituality Series. Opening remarks were given by the university’s chaplain, Craig Kocher, and the chaplain for spiritual life, Jamie Lynn Haskins.
Newsome focused her lecture on the idea that it was not the obligation just of the suppressed to speak up, but also of those who benefit from this continued suppression.
She began her lecture with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as cooperation with good.”
“Oftentimes people think that non-violence is passive or people confuse peaceful protest as protest that is non-disruptive,” Newsome said.
These confusions are the exact opposite of what non-violence means, she said. As King's words suggest, non-violence is not only cooperating with good but actively refusing to cooperate with that which is evil, Newsome said.
Many of Newsome’s beliefs and actions as a community leader are built upon the foundation of hundreds of years of family history located in the heart of confederate North Carolina. The overall message she had gotten from those around her was that her ancestors struggled so that she wouldn’t have to, Newsome said.
Nevertheless, in 2013, Newsome witnessed the unraveling of civil rights within North Carolina as the local government attempted to suppress minority votes, she said.
“I was imbued with a sense of duty and responsibility to be the best that I could personally be and to honor the struggle of my ancestors,” she said.
After participating and leading in several other protests in the South as well as witnessing national coverage of protests across the nation addressing police brutality and the killings of young African American men, Newsome said that the reality of the killing of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, was everywhere.
These protests ignited youths and students everywhere and called the country to address racism that had slipped by for hundreds of years, she said. After Dylann Roof entered Emanuel A.M.E. Church and killed nine black parishioners, Newsome was no longer willing to tolerate the Confederate flag flying at the South Carolina Capitol.
“After the South lost the Civil War, the Confederate flag was flown as a representation of Jim Crow,” she said. “Charleston’s flag was untouchable because of its history with Jim Crow violence and Civil War secession."
Soon after the shooting, photos emerged of Roof holding the Confederate flag and a new sense of outrage occurred within the people of South Carolina, Newsome said. Newsome had again become a community organizer and recognized that she was willing to go to jail if she took down the flag at the Capitol, she said.
As Newsome recalled the day that she climbed the South Carolina flagpole, she thanked James Tyson, a fellow organizer, who helped her climb the fence and stood guard during her ascent, she said.
“We chose to attack a symbol of systemic racism with a direct action that symbolized its dismantling,” Newsome said. “By removing the flag, we forced the state of South Carolina into a moral crisis about whether to put it back up.”
Newsome concluded her lecture by emphasizing that social movement is shared leadership and looks like thousands of people accomplishing thousands of things all over the world. Everyone has the power to be a change-maker, she said.
“Society must undergo a shift from a state of unconsciousness to a state of consciousness, from a society organized around the myth of right racial superiority to one that’s organized around human rights and a belief in equality,” Newsome said.
“The only question to ask yourself is ‘what will be my contribution?’” she said. “'What will I do to help humanity lift itself up?'"
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