June 17, 2015 is the day Bree Newsome’s life changed forever. “As long as I live I will never forget the night of the Charleston massacre,” she said while speaking to the campus community at the SRC Arena. Newsome was referring to the night a white male named Dylan Roof shot and killed nine African American worshippers at the historically black Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. “It was 2015 and this level of racial terrorism and hate was still happening in America.”
Roof’s crimes were motivated by race. A Facebook picture of him on his car showed pictures of his license plate with different versions of the Confederate flag. The flags were surrounded by the words, “Confederate States of America.” He had also reportedly told a friend prior to the shooting that he, “Wanted to start a civil war.”
Newsome’s family was from the south. Her family had been enslaved. “I grew up seeing the Confederate flag,” she said. “There was no mystery in my family about what it meant.”
Ten days after the murders, Newsome took matters into her own hands. She strapped on climbing equipment, scaled a 30-foot high flagpole outside South Carolina’s State House and removed the Confederate flag. “We chose to remove the flag immediately both as an act of civil disobedience and as a demonstration of the power people have when we work together. We couldn’t wait for South Carolina to do the right thing. We had been waiting for more than 100 years.” When Newsome climbed down the flagpole she was arrested and the flag was reinstalled. Less than a month later South Carolina lawmakers voted to take down the Confederate flag permanently.
Newsome was invited to OCC as part of “Welcome Week” activities to share her story and motivate students to take action. “Civil disobedience and public protest are essential to achieving democracy. They always have been and they always be. Every person has the power within them to be a change maker. Once you become conscious of the world and the times in which you live the only question to ask yourself is, ‘What will be my contribution? Where will I jump in to help humanity lift itself up?’ Ask this of yourself. Answer it for yourself and have the courage to act on your convictions.”
Earlier in the day Newsome took time to meet with a small group of students and college employees. She listened to their stories and encouraged each person to get involved. “We all contribute to making society what it is. You have to realize what your personal ownership is and what legacy you want to have. One person can’t change everything but you certainly have an impact on the world around you.”
Student Christopher White was thankful he had the opportunity to participate in the small group setting. “It was great to have the privilege to be here, hear someone else’s experience and what compelled them to become who they are today. It reaffirms you’re doing the right thing, you’re in the right space. Talking with someone with her experience definitely motivates me.”