Activist calls for resistance to ‘backlash’ of white supremacy marring MLK’s dream
Achieving Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equality in the United States will require a “radical transformation” in American values and organization, community activist and artist Bree Newsome told a large crowd Jan. 24 in Battell Chapel.
“A system built on anti-blackness,” she said in her keynote address as part of the campus’ annual celebration of King’s birthday, “cannot be reformed [to become] a system that values black lives.” Her address “Chaos or Community: Fifty Years Later, Where Do We Go From Here?” was named after the title of King’s final book, “Where Do We Go From Here,” published in 1967.
Newsome — who drew national media attention in June 2015 when she was arrested after removing a Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds — said that systemic racism and injustice, including police oppression, must be addressed in order to realize King’s still unmet dream for racial and economic equality.
She called President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign a manifestation of a deeply entrenched American ideology of white supremacy that is at odds with its Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom and equality for all citizens.
“It is the belief that the natural order of the world is for whites to dominate wealth and institutions of power,” said Newsome. “It is the ideology of white supremacy which would have us believe that the high percentage of black Americans living in poverty, being killed by police, or incarcerated in prison is not the result of systemic oppression but the natural result of a genetic inferiority of the black race.”
In the more than 50 years since King demonstrated for civil and economic rights for African Americans during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Newsome noted, only one of King’s demands has been met: equal access to public accommodations. The others — equal housing, adequate and integrated education, and the right to vote among them — remain unfulfilled, she said, noting that illegal gerrymandering in some states serves to disenfranchise African Americans and that in 2013 the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act.
Currently, “[t]he ideals of freedom and justice and equality are under relentless assault in the United States,” Newsome said. “Here we are 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, 50 years after the violent interruption of his peace mission, 50 years after he launched the Poor People’s Campaign, and the poverty rate for black children is the same as in 1968. Even though the total number of children living in poverty has declined, the percentage of black children living in poverty has remained the same.”
Newsome described the current state of racial affairs in the nation as a “crisis,” but said that this crisis has existed for the country from its birth.
“The question of black freedom — a question central to the issue of American democracy since the nation’s founding — this is the crisis that remains an open and unsettled matter,” she said.”
From MLK’s dream to Black Power to Black Lives Matter
While tracing the civil rights movement through its different incarnations, from King’s nonviolent demonstrations to the Black Power movement and today’s Black Lives Matter campaign, Newsome noted how every gain in civil rights for African Americans has been met with a backlash by resentful white supremacists. These backlashes have included the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws following the end of slavery and “campaigns of terror” by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s and 1960s. The “Make America Great Again” campaign, she told her audience, is a new wave of white supremacist backlash and “an outright assault” on civil rights and everything for which Martin Luther King advocated, spoke about, and represented.
Newsome began her own activism in 2013 when she attended a protest organized by a chapter of the NAACP on the issue of black voting and gerrymandering. That same year, she said, she became “deeply disturbed” by the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, in Florida. She traveled to Florida in support of the Dream Defenders, who protested the verdict at the Florida state capital. The Dream Defenders, she pointed out, are among numerous millennial activist groups that sprang up after Trayvon Martin’s death.
“This is the movement for black lives,” said Newsome, who grew up in North Carolina. “I was excited to be a part of a cause much greater than myself and to carry forward the banner of freedom, equality, and justice.”
She and other activists studied the lives and philosophies of other “freedom fighters” who came before them and developed their own styles and modes of protest. She described how her own act of protest in removing the Confederate flag was part of a carefully orchestrated plan symbolically geared at “abolishing the spirit of hatred and oppression in all of its forms.
“Once we settled the first matter of who would scale the pole, which was largely a matter of who could physically do it and who could risk being arrested … we as a collective thought more about what we wanted to communicate visually and symbolically with this action,” she recalled. “We would be attacking a symbol of white supremacy with an action that symbolized its dismantling.”
Newsome praised her fellow activist James Tyson, who stood guard as she climbed a fence and scaled the flagpole, for being her “accomplice” in the cause. When police officers threatened to use tasers (a potential electrocution hazard) on Newsome, Tyson held the metal flagpole and said that they would have to electrocute him too, if they shot at Newsome.
“It’s become common to hear social justice advocates say that they don’t need white allies, they need white accomplices,” Newsome said. “An accomplice is what James was that day. History will rightly remember him alongside the many white accomplices over the centuries who have risked their own safety and in some cases spilled their own blood in defense of black life and in the name of freedom.”
Life over things
Newsome chastised politicians who invoke the name of Martin Luther King Jr. as part of an annual “ceremonial obligation” while they “spend the rest of the year attempting to undo the very civil rights protections for which he gave his life.”
She also said it is disturbing for her to see how black protestors are often ignored until they have caused damage to physical property or interrupt commerce.
“I do reject the notion that there’s any moral equivalency between police depriving Eric Garner of oxygen in a choke-hold and a black teenager smashing the window of a police [cruiser] in protest of racism,” Newsome said. She added that while some argue that King would never condone such acts of violence, “we can’t say how King would respond to modern protests.” She called many of the recent uprisings “informed and targeted rebellion[s] against the oppression of racism and capitalism” and not the “misdirected chaos” these events are often portrayed as by the media.
Newsome told her audience that patience and realism are required as part of any movement of resistance, quoting King: “A final victory is an accumulation of many short-term encounters. To lightly dismiss a success because it does not usher in a complete order of justice is to fail to comprehend the process of achieving full victory.” She said that the movement she is involved in is part of a larger struggle for human rights, whether for women, the undocumented, the people of First Nations, gay people, or others who have been “enslaved.”
“Human rights is the question of our time,” concluded Newsome in her address. “It is up to all of us to provide the answer.”
After her address, Newsome was presented a citation for her courage by New Haven alderwoman Jeanette Morrison, who represents Ward 22.
Singing, dancing, and drumming
The event in Battell Chapel also included a performance by the New Haven African Dance and Drum Group (including an invitation for members of the audience to take part in dancing), as well as the singing of the medley “We Shall Overcome/Amen” by the undergraduate a cappella group Shades. Remsen Walsh read Langston Hughes’ 1951 poem “A Dream Deferred.” Dianne Lake ’16, LAW ’20 welcomed guests and moderated a question-and-answer session with Newsome, and Yale College Dean Marvin Chun introduced the keynote speaker. Risë Nelson, director of the Afro-American Cultural Center (AACC) and assistant dean of Yale College, offered closing remarks, telling the audience that “hope dies” when a dream is too long deferred. She said she felt hope among the guests in Battell Chapel, and asked all audience members to commit to taking up the cause of racial equality and healing so that “in another 50 years, we’re not facing these same evils.”
Earlier in the day, Newsome gave an address to more than 1,000 New Haven high school students and their teachers in Battell Chapel, where she spoke about the role of youth in civil rights movements.
Nelson, herself a New Haven native, introduced Newsome and invited the students in attendance to become involved in the AACC, to recognize the strength of their voices as future leaders, and to “continue pushing together — and across generations, identities, and neighborhood lines — for social transformation.”