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Confederate-Flag Controversy Underscores Need for Educational Activism

Bree Newsome removes the Confederate battle flag at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., on June 27. Newsome was taken into custody when she came down; the flag was raised again by Capitol workers about 45 minutes later.
Bree Newsome removes the Confederate battle flag at the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., on June 27. Newsome was taken into custody when she came down; the flag was raised again by Capitol workers about 45 minutes later.
—Bruce Smith/AP
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Late last month, as the nation engaged in heated discourse about the history and implications of the Confederate battle flag, a 30-year-old activist, filmmaker, and songwriter named Bree Newsome scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol and physically removed the very flag legislators inside were discussing. Her act was decisive and swift, temporarily putting an end to the debate, nearly two weeks before the state officially took down the flag.

Commenting on her action, Newsome said this: “We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer. We can’t continue like this another day. It’s time for a new chapter, where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.” The time for a new chapter is indeed upon us.

Newsome’s act of defiance seemed all the more significant that day because initial reports identified her as an educator—a member of a profession rarely given credit for such audacity and courage. In fact, both of her parents, whom Newsome identified as a major influence on her own activism, were educators. Her mother taught poor children of color and focused on closing achievement and opportunity gaps. Her father served as the president of Shaw University, the historically black college in Raleigh, N.C.

“Educators must help write this new chapter of American history, one that represents the most recent incarnation of the civil rights movement.”

Educators must help write this new chapter of American history, one that represents the most recent incarnation of the civil rights movement. One of the greatest lessons to be gleaned from Bree Newsome’s ascent is that her protest was an educative act, because it illuminates the links to history, space, and education.

Though not a teacher in the formal sense, Bree Newsome is an educator in the context of the civil rights movement. She uses her talents, passions, and creativity to engage young people, mobilize resistance, and raise the collective consciousness of the nation.

Placing her ascent in historical context, moreover, illustrates just how courageous many educators in the Carolinas have been throughout history. Though she climbed the staff of the flag by herself, Bree Newsome was supported by a long history of educator-activists. Consider the following examples.

• Benjamin Mays was born in the 1890s, in a town called Ninety Six, S.C., and was reared in the black religious tradition of liberation theology that appeared to incite the scorn of the recent Charleston, S.C., church gunman Dylann Roof. Grounded in the traditions of self-help that shaped the experiences of countless other black individuals, Mays earned a degree from South Carolina State University and went on to earn a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Chicago in 1935.

An honor guard from the South Carolina highway patrol removes the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds in Columbia, S.C., on July 10, ending its 54-year presence there.
An honor guard from the South Carolina highway patrol removes the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds in Columbia, S.C., on July 10, ending its 54-year presence there.
—John Bazemore/AP

Mays, deeply influenced by Gandhian principles of nonviolence, inculcated a sense of both resistance to injustice and civic engagement among his students. When he served as the president of Morehouse College, from 1940 to 1967, one such student was a young Martin Luther King Jr., who learned to articulate his vision of social change and the means to achieve it under Mays’ tutelage. His influence on the future civil rights leader was evident in the fact that Benjamin Mays delivered the eulogy at King’s funeral in 1968. His message was praised for its healing effect—much as President Barack Obama’s eulogy at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was praised this month.

• Septima Clark was born in 1898 in Charleston and graduated in 1916 from Avery Normal Institute there, which entitled her to teach. But because Charleston refused at that time to hire black teachers for black students, she was forced to teach on John’s Island, one of the Lowcountry Sea Islands susceptible to poverty and disease but rich in culture, history, and West African traditions. It was in this rural island setting that Septima Clark learned how to resist legal segregation and form partnerships with the oppressed.

She returned to Charleston in 1919, joined the NAACP, and helped overturn the law that had excluded African-American teachers from teaching in black schools. Later, she served as a mentor to Rosa Parks—well before her defiant stand on that bus in Montgomery, Ala. Clark criticized Dr. King for silencing women, and spoke up for those who struggled to find their voice. She also helped found the Citizenship Schools, an adult education program that taught the literacy skills needed to pass discriminatory voting tests and other policies in South Carolina. Firmly committed to justice, Clark suffered the nonrenewal of her contract was after she listed her affiliation with the “subversive” NAACP in 1956.

"Bree Newsome taught us that we do need a 'new chapter' of race relations, and her act serves as a textbook example of the kind of civil disobedience that made the movement for civil rights so powerfully effective."

• Ella Baker, born in 1903, graduated in 1937 from the very same institution Bree Newsome’s father led, Shaw University. Baker organized young people through the YWCA, and spoke out fiercely against the injustices faced by African-Americans, while she lived in Harlem. Disappointed in what she saw as the misogynistic tendencies of the civil rights movement’s leadership, and by the interfactional politics that often stymied participatory democracy, Baker worked to create space for the young protesters involved in the 1960 sit-ins to organize on their own, free from the corrosive influence of adults. Under her watchful guidance, college students formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, known as SNCC, and helped change the course of the civil rights movement.

So, Bree Newsome was not alone on that Saturday morning as she climbed the flagpole. She stood on the shoulders of giants, most of them educators. She may, however, be one of the first to highlight an obvious fact that may have been overlooked: Education is essential to overcoming the ignorance and silence that framed the shootings at Emanuel AME Church. As part of this message, Chad Williams, who chairs the department of African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University, has created the #Charlestonsyllabus, which outlines a serious reading list to better educate ourselves and our students about the history and the issues that frame the recent tragedy. But Newsome called us all to action—and educators, history teaches, often lead the way.

Bree Newsome taught us that we do need a “new chapter” of American history, and her act serves as a textbook example of the kind of civil disobedience that made the movement for civil rights so powerfully effective. As she scaled the staff in Columbia, S.C., a bulwark of the former Confederacy, she not only took matters into her own hands, she also sounded a battle cry—a call for educators to re-examine their profession, and for the nation to fundamentally transform an institution that permitted Dylann Roof to slip through its cracks. She reminded us of a history that suggests educators can and should lead this struggle to understand and to change. She gave bold witness to the fact that educators must take a courageous stand, insert lessons about race and racism into our curriculum, and make visible an invisible history of hatred.

But Newsome’s actions also convey to us the dangers of such work. So we must call upon our elected officials to protect the voice and activism of educators in “right to work” states. Activism led to Bree Newsome’s arrest and the prospect of serving time in prison. Without protection, the silencing of education may continue. As the American South has begun to lower the Confederate flag, all of us need to reimagine our schools as places worthy of the efforts of a long line of progressive black educators whose work gave inspiration to Bree Newsome’s “teachable moment” of civil disobedience.

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