On June 27th, activist Bree Newsome scaled a South Carolina Statehouse flagpole and yanked down the Confederate battle flag. As police officers shouted for her to come down, Newsome declared into the early morning light:
"You come against me with hatred, oppression, and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today. "
Predictably, debates ensued in comments sections and on Twitter about whether Newsome should have worked through the political system instead of taking matters into her own hands. But Newsome's actions demonstrate a masterful understanding of the founding principles of this nation, marking her as a crusader devoted to upholding the constitutional rights of people still struggling to be free.
This is particularly significant considering the founders of the United States were white landowners and slaveholders whose ideas about liberty were meant to apply only to that class of people. Newsome’s resistance lies in enforcing the principles of a document that was never meant to apply to her.
By pointedly (and flawlessly) exercising her constitutional rights, Newsome has emerged as the true definition of a patriot – a person willing to risk her own freedom to ensure that the United States lives up to the ideals we promise in our pledge of allegiance: Liberty and justice for all.
This First Amendment mandates that Congress “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The rights bestowed here are not simplistic – it isn’t just the act of speaking that’s protected. The amendment also grants the right to peaceful assembly, which is observed by the group Newsome brought to witness, and protects symbolic gestures like taking down the flag.
If Newsome had taken it down and burned it, it would have been protected: The Supreme Court ruled that flag burning is “symbolic speech” in 1989 in Texas vs. Johnson. Newsome’s act sent a powerful message that all citizens of South Carolina should be able to look upon the Capitol and feel like equal citizens under the law.
Activists in South Carolina have petitioned the government “for a redress of grievances” by removing “the Stainless Banner” for years. And according to a new analysis by the Post and Courier, there is now enough support in the legislature to permanently take the flag down from the Statehouse grounds. But it’s telling that lawmakers didn’t seem to care about the offensive nature of the flag and its association with white supremacist groups until after nine black people were murdered at a Bible study group in Charleston on June 17th.
The Confederate battle flag represents different things to different people – supporters (like the Ku Klux Klan), who are mostly white, see it as a symbol of rebellion against big government and the right for states to self-govern. Those who oppose the flag point out that the South it represents was built on unpaid black labor and that the dominant power structures (both then and now) were invested in maintaining the myth that African-Americans were not people but property.
In Newsome’s own statement, released on June 29th, she explains what the flag symbolizes to her:
For far too long, white supremacy has dominated the politics of America resulting in the creation of racist laws and cultural practices designed to subjugate non-whites. And the emblem of the confederacy, the stars and bars, in all its manifestations, has long been the most recognizable banner of this political ideology. It’s the banner of racial intimidation and fear whose popularity experiences an uptick whenever black Americans appear to be making gains economically and politically in this country.
Despite all this, it’s important to note that during her act of civil disobedience, Newsome was so respectful that she never let the flag hit the ground.
Newsome is also right about the creation of racist laws and subpractices. The Thirteenth Amendment is a beautiful example of how the refusal to acknowledge black personhood was codified into law. When President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the decree focused on states that had seceded – not slaveholding states in the Union. But even explicitly stating in the Thirteenth Amendment that slavery was prohibited was not enough – it took an additional amendment, The Fourteenth, to ensure these rights were upheld for black citizens, and that all people were considered citizens under the law.
The Fourteenth Amendment reads: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
In the wake of the April 4th shooting of Walter Scott by a South Carolina police officer, it would appear that the state (as well as many jurisdictions around the country) routinely deprives African-Americans of life and liberty without due process of law. How much of that is influenced by the Confederate flag waving on Capitol grounds, which might as well read “African-Americans: Still 3/5ths of a person?”
Newsome's climb was informed by politics, yes, but also a deep and faith in the truth and potential of acknowledging the richness of the American story:
I know my history and my heritage. The Confederacy is neither the only legacy of the south nor an admirable one. The southern heritage I embrace is the legacy of a people unbowed by racial oppression. […] The history of the South is also in many ways complex and full of inconvenient truths. But in order to move into the future we must reckon with the past.
And there is no truer patriot than one who can acknowledge a nation’s darkness, but still point toward dawn.
Patriotism is simply defined as “a person who loves, supports, and defends his or her country and its interests with devotion.” Bree Newsome’s statement shows she is enamored by what the United States stands for, and is willing to protect those ideals – even if it means defending the country from itself.