In the early morning hours of Saturday, June 27th, Bree Newsome, an activist and filmmaker, climbed a 30-foot flagpole on South Carolina’s capitol grounds and took down the Confederate flag, a symbol many view as one of hate and terrorism. James Tyson, a kindred spirit and activist in his own right, helped her scale the 4-foot fence surrounding the flagpole and stood by to render assistance.
Their action was provoked by the killing ten days earlier of nine Black church members in Charleston at the hands of a 21-year-old white supremacist. Before Newsome’s feet hit the ground, the police were on hand to arrest the duo.
Last week, Newsome and Tyson electrified a standing-room-only audience at the University of Miami. They were there to address the larger issue of race in America.
“The concept or belief that what’s going on in black America, doesn’t affect white America or a town where everybody is white is dangerous,” Newsome said. “It’s naive to think that the trends you see hitting the poorest, the most vulnerable among us, are going to remain among the poorest and most vulnerable…don’t wait until it’s at your door.”
Newsome said that events in the black American community are often “the canary in the coalmine” or a precursor to indications of larger societal woes.
“I think that’s why it’s so important that we speak up for other groups. If not out of a shared common humanity, out of the recognition that ‘there but for the grace of God go I,’” said the 30-year-old activist, who credits her faith as much of her inspiration to fight oppression.
The event “Courage to Be: Bringing Down the Flag,” centered around the idea of finding the courage to take action, and drew hundreds from the UM community. There was a palpable camaraderie in the air as those gathered and listened to the journeys of both Newsome and Tyson.
“Both Newsome and Tyson delivered a powerful message that should resonate with law students,” said Miami Law Professor Osamudia James. “In law school, we focus very heavily on precedent, often looking backward. Newsome and Tyson, however, reminded us that justice requires also looking forward, and that law students can be particularly well positioned to actively use their training to achieve a more just and inclusive society.”
Tyson, 30, who is white, feels the weight of privilege. “Privilege is one of those things that confuses, particularly white people, into believing that the system is good for them in one way or another,” he said. “So there is this resistance against pushing against the status quo, but the reality is, privilege is something that can be taken away just as easily as it’s given.”
Tyson, who was asked to participate in the June 27th take down, said he would not have participated had he not been asked. He challenged those in attendance Wednesday not to turn away from callings that are the right thing to do, no matter how difficult they may be.
“With the work that I’ve done I’ve always wanted to create the world I want to live in. I’m not going to just be complacent in the world that was given to me, I’m going to insist on the world that we collectively want,” Tyson said, who together with Newsome, is now facing charges that could send them to up to three years in prison.
Understanding the possible consequences, neither Newsome nor Tyson would change their actions of taking down that flag that day. The two feel they did what was right, something every human being is capable of, they said.
Tyson left the crowd with a well-received message, “I want to encourage everybody here to recognize that that courage to be exists in every single one of us.”
"The event with Bree Newsome and James Tyson really personified the concept of the ‘courage to be.’ Both individuals spoke from their hearts and, in doing so, shed light on the perverse and illogical nature of racism and the foothold it still has in the minds of many in America – or the world for that matter – whether they realize it or not,” said a 1L named Danielle, who asked for her last name not to be included. “They both showcased their courage to be human which is who we really are; not just a ‘black woman’ or a ‘white man.’ Those titles have no meaning or basis in reality outside of the imaginary ideas that surround them."
Pastor Peter Matthews of The United Wesley Foundation of Miami organized the event as part of the Master Lecture Series.