Two years ago this week, Bree Newsome climbed a flagpole on the South Carolina state house grounds and physically removed the Confederate flag that still flew more than 150 years after the end of legal slavery.
It was a brave thing to do, inspiring in its simplicity and its directness. I’ve thought of it many times since when problems have started to seem overwhelming. Is there a way to cut the crap, climb the flagpole and just take down the problem?
Newsome came and spoke at a UW event called “Tearing Hatred from the Sky: An Evening with Bree Newsome” back in February, and I was lucky to be in attendance. Here are three memorable lessons from that night:
“In the biography for social change-makers, you’ll find that there’s probably some moment in their life where they had a shift in their consciousness. If you’re an activist, you can probably point to that point in your life.”
I think this is an important, rarely discussed truth that most activists have in common. Something along the way wakes you up — a moment in time, an event or series of events that literally activates you. It’s a personal thing, an individual transformation on a fundamental, often spiritual level. Afterward, nothing is the same.
“I was on my sofa just trying to figure out, can I go down there and just hop the fence? I didn’t know how to climb. I had no climbing skill yet at that time. That’s just how strongly I felt that the statement needed to be made of how unacceptable it was for this flag to fly.”
This represents another universal truth of activism: that it’s often driven by an irrepressible urge to do something impossible. The key here is that Newsome knew what needed to be done. She knew that flag needed to come down, so she set about to figuring out how to do it. It’s within each of us to do what needs to be done. We just have to decide to do it.
“There was a time when the idea of a United States without slavery was inconceivable. You have to understand, that’s part of why our nation had a civil war over this issue because it was the economy. There were people who could not conceive of how you could have a prosperous United States without chattel slavery. And the only reason that we are sitting here today in this lovely space with all these lovely faces as we are, is because there were people at that time that had faith that things could be different. In order for the future to be better than it is now, we have to have that same kind of radical faith today.”
There was a time when not enslaving people for financial gain was a radical idea. What about our time will people look back on with disbelief?
The truth is that we may have to change everything to solve anything that’s plaguing our nation right now. But don’t lose hope. Remember that the economy is an idea, but people are real. Capitalism is a concept, but liberation is a state of being.
Be brave. Today’s radical is the leader whose courage we honor tomorrow. Have faith in your vision for the future.