Bree Newsome’s Reclamation Of Faith
There has been lots of talk as of late about the evil that men do in the name of God, but what about the good?
Bree Newsome, the multi-talented musician and activist who has spent a good chunk of her life fighting for human rights and social justice, was arrested this past weekend for taking down the Confederate Flag. The flag has been flying erroneously over the South Carolina statehouse since 1962.
The 30-year-old activist’s act of civil disobedience would come almost two weeks after the terrorist attack at the Emanuel AME Church, which resulted in the tragic murder of nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. While the state legislators debated the merits of flying a defeated and racist flag over the state capitol building and the majority of Americans patiently waited for those legislators to come to their senses, Newsome decided that it was time to push the conversation. With her activist partner James Tyler spotting her from the ground, she scaled a 30-foot flag pole above the Capitol dome and removed it herself. And as she made her descent to the ground, Newsome held the flag in her hand and yelled out,
“I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!”
Of course, her act of civil disobedience would land her and her partner in jail and looking at five years in prison in addition to a fine of $5,000 each. But as many have noted, Newsome’s bravery follows a long tradition of Black women activists who risked both life and limb for Black liberation, including Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Harriet Tubman. But what many have missed is that her act not only follows but reclaims another long tradition of Black preachers and laypersons alike who used their faith to guide them to fight for the greater good.
Folks like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who in addition to being the face of the civil rights movement, was also a practicing minister hailing from of a long line of radical Black Baptist preachers. Dr. King often used scripture from the Bible in his speeches to condemn society for its immoral propensities. For Malcolm Little, his introduction into the Nation of Islam would not only inspire his personal transformation into el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, but also be the backbone of his quest for Black nationalism and Black power. Both of these men, among others who served the greater good of Black liberation, believed in God. And it was their faith in a higher power that would nurture, comfort, and yes, compel them to defiantly resist and wrestle with society’s shortcomings.
There was a reason terrorist Dylann Roof decided to target Emanuel AME that late Wednesday night on June 17. It wasn’t just about seeking out a place where he could find the most docile among us, but rather it was about targeting a place that served as a symbol of freedom. The Black church was not only the meeting place where those of the various movements for Black Liberation met to organize, it was also the only place where our people could be and express themselves freely and without repercussion from the White supremacy power structure.
In 1786, it was two Black Sunday worshippers by the names of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones who would walk out of the White-dominated St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and go on to form the African Methodist Church. They did this after being told that Blacks had no place worshipping in the same vicinity as Whites. And it was through that church, as well as their faith as ordained ministers, that they would form the Free African Society. It would provide free education, as well as medical, spiritual and economic support to recently freed Blacks.
And in 1818, Denmark Vesey, who helped to found the original AME Church in Philadelphia would go on to start another church in South Carolina. He used that facility, as well scriptures from the Bible, to organize hundreds of slaves in a failed uprising. It was their earlier examples of faith-based organizing, which would act as models for other Black congregations throughout history. Even to the present, such examples would help to employ self-determination as a means to establish schools, housing, banks, insurance companies and other social service organizations to benefit the larger Black community.
I am not a religious person, although I do consider myself faithful to the idea of a higher power. And I vehemently detest those who use their religious beliefs to condemn, ostracize and do harm to others. I also believe that the Black church and those of its faithful flock are not above scrutiny, particularly around its treatment of those in the LGBTQ communities, and women. But when people ask what faith in God has gotten us, we have to remember that in addition to the horrible things that people do in the name of God, faith has also provided us with Dr. King, Malcolm, Garvey, Newsome and a whole host of other Black liberators too.