By Layla Kellogg
Hundreds from the Bellarmine and Louisville Community gathered Sept. 12 to hear a speech from a woman who has climbed to new heights for social justice.
Bree Newsome gathered national media attention in 2015 when she scaled a 30-foot flagpole and removed a Confederate flag outside the South Carolina Statehouse. Newsome, an American filmmaker, speaker, and activist from Charlotte, North Carolina, was Bellarmine University’s 2017 Constitution Day speaker.
Newsome recalled becoming more active in social justice issues in 2013 when there was a push to change voting registration laws in North Carolina. The new laws would leave many minority populations underrepresented, Newsome said.
She participated in a sit-in protesting the decision.
Newsome said she was “inspired by (the other protesters’) courage and their commitment to a righteous cause.”
Taylor Garrison, a Bellarmine sophomore said: “She knew what she was doing was difficult, she knew the consequences, and risked her life. Nothing stopped her.
“It is important for us to have a speaker like this because Bellarmine is diverse, but not diverse enough. It is growing, and faculty and staff are helping to recognize problems on campus and include minorities.”
Bellarmine received mixed reviews on hosting Newsome’s event. While many showed support, some Facebook comments on the event’s post proved not everyone was pleased.
One Facebook user wrote: “To voice your opinion is one thing; to condone actions such as that is part of the problem. She was wrong in what she did. And to give her a platform will encourage that kind of obnoxious behavior.”
Newsome’s speech at Bellarmine outlined the history or race and racism within the United States, and she recounted her own experiences.
Newsome recalled witnessing her uncle being lynched and her grandmother’s neighbor being beaten in the street.
“It is the pervasive threat of such violence that made the Confederate flag in South Carolina so untouchable for so many years,” Newsome said.
Amber Schools, a Bellarmine student, attended the question-and-answer workshop with Newsome on Sept. 13.
“Someone asked whether we should continue to view the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism,” Schools said. “Bree answered that there is no reclaiming this flag as heritage;g it is a symbol of racism. I think it’s some real bull s**t when history teachers say that the Civil War was not about slavery and about states’ rights. The only right they were fighting for was slavery.”
Schools said some students may not have seen or heard the types of microaggressions she’s experienced.
“I’ve been called a f*ggot and been in classes where professors have used the N-word openly. As college students we need to sit down and have a conversation about why these slurs are wrong and why we shouldn’t use them,” Schools said.
James Tyson, friend to Newsome and a Greenpeace activist with tree-climbing experience, trained Newsome how to climb the flagpole safely. In June 2015, Tyson helped her over the fence and spotted her when, with police quickly circling below her, Newsome climbed the 30-foot pole.
“We couldn’t wait for South Carolina to do the right thing,” Newsome said . “We had been waiting for South Carolina to do the right thing for over 100 years in terms of racial justice.”
Bellarmine student, Keneisha Johnson, said “This year needs to be a year of change, and it needs to start with the truth.”
Newsome said that by removing the flag, she forced South Carolina into a “moral crisis” in which the state had to determine if it would raise the flag again.
When Newsome climbed down from the pole, police arrested her and Tyson. The charges against both were ultimately dropped.
“I have to put myself on the line… because I have examined what’s at stake for me if I don’t,” Newsome said.
Over two years ago now, 30 feet up in the air, with the Confederate flag in hand, Newsome shouted: “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!”
The flag Newsome removed was never raised again.
“It’s not just about a flag,” Newsome said. “It’s about abolishing the spirit of hatred in all forms.”