On the morning of June 27th, 2015, activist Bree Newsome took down the Confederate flag in front of the South Carolina Statehouse. She was immediately arrested. As news spread of her civil disobedience, public support poured in online. Her removal of the flag symbolizes the dire tactics now being taken by a new generation of activists. While the tactics of old still have merit, the emerging generation of Black activists surrounding Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, Baltimore movements and beyond, have repeatedly pushed the helms of civil disobedience, tapping into and reinventing tools for on-the-ground activism.
After 6 Black women and 3 Black men were murdered at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Confederate flag still remained raised at the South Carolina Statehouse and other public spaces.
The Confederate flag has been used as a tool for symbolizing the oppression of Black Americans throughout the South. It is not merely an innocent symbol of pride. In fact, the Confederate flag was added to the SC Statehouse in 1962 as a symbolic protest against the achievements of the Civil Rights Era. The murderer of the slain 6 Black women and 3 Black men regarded the Confederate flag as a symbol of his white supremacist beliefs.
Just as the swastika is known as a tool of Nazi propaganda and symbol of the Holocaust, with the deaths of millions of Jewish people, the Confederate flag is a tool of white supremacist ideals connected to the deaths of millions of African descended people across the Americas. It specifically is used as a tool to promote nostalgia of the South’s slavery era, in which Black Americans were enslaved and tortured on a daily basis. Within this nostalgia is the idea of the “Master,” the owner of slaves and plantations, with the power to treat Blacks in what ever manner he pleased. During chattel slavery, Masters had many tools for physical and mental oppression. Public whippings, hangings, chains, cutting off of limbs, hot boxes and etc, were used as the Masters’ tools for securing subjugation.
After Civil War defeat, Reconstruction and much later the Civil Rights Era, bitterness towards Black life and achievements remained a Southern norm. At any turn, many white southerners sought to reaffirm their supremacy. Thus, during desegregation and Civil Rights movements, the Confederate flag started being used in public spaces as a symbolic expression of white supremacy. The false mantra that the confederate flag is a symbol of “bravery” amongst Confederate soldiers is merely used as a diversion tool. Black southerners are continually reminded that the Confederate flag serves as a warning to Blacks, as if to say, “Don’t push it too far with this ‘rights talk.’ Remember where you are.”
Bree Newsome’s takedown of the Confederate flag is symbolic of the changes that the Emerging Majority is forcing the U.S. to confront. Traditions of the past steeped on the hills of oppression will no longer be accepted as mere nuisances. The more these symbols are allowed to be promoted happily throughout society, the more ingrained they become in the minds of new generations.
Consequently, this cycle of oppression and its symbols need to be dethroned at every corner.
At the end of World War II, Germany went through a denazification process. Following the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, entire cities were renamed in Russia. Statues of communist leaders were torn down. Currently, in the United States of America there are still cities, streets, and statues in honor of slave traders, slave owners, rapists and other terrorists of Black life. America has yet to have a thorough organized and sustained dethroning of white supremacy, even though America was at the forefront of much of the denazification process.
Though removing the Confederate flag will not end Black oppression, it is a step in the right direction.
In the words of Audre Lorde, “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.” Thus it is imperative to utilize methods for organizing that are centered around current Black realities while also countering and deconstructing anti-Black narratives. Bree Newsome and her fellow activists are taking vital steps towards continuing this practice of dethroning oppressive symbolism through confrontational civil disobedience.
Jessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of OurLegaci.com.
Learn more about her work at JessicaAnnMitchell.com.