— deray mckesson (@deray) June 27, 2015
(CNN) — Dressed in climbing gear and a helmet, Brittany “Bree” Newsome shimmied up a 30-foot flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina state Capitol early Saturday and removed the Confederate battle flag that has reignited national debate over the emblem’s place in modern America.
Newsome removed the banner hours before a pro-flag rally was scheduled to take place at the monument in Columbia. By the time the flag was raised again, the moment had made its mark in the ongoing debate over the Confederate banner on the State House grounds — and its value in American society 150 years after the end of the Civil War.
Newsome was arrested after she returned to ground with flag in hand. Video shows fellow activist James Tyson waiting at the flagpole’s base inside the wrought-iron fence to help her out of her climbing gear. She posted bond and was released from jail Saturday afternoon, spokesman Mervyn Marcano said. Calls to her attorney have not been returned.
Newsome and Tyson, both 30, were charged with defacing a monument, a misdemeanor, and a new flag went up within about an hour, according to the S.C. Department of Public Safety. Not long after they were led away in handcuffs, Newsome became an online hero, a trending topic on social media and the subject of an online fundraiser.
Opponents of the flag, including celebrities, politicians and civil rights activists, used #FreeBree to applaud Newsome for doing what many thought lawmakers should have done sooner. While filmmaker Michael Moore offered to pay Newsome’s legal fees, advocacy group ColorofChange launched an online petition calling for the charge to be dropped and an online fundraiser was set up pay Newsome’s legal fees.
“Her actions represent a nation that is saying NO MORE of letting this symbol of white supremacy fly,” first lady of New York Chirlane McCray said in a tweet.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also came out in support of Newsome, likening her actions to those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“As well as supporting the permanent removal of the flag legislatively, we commend the courage and moral impulse of Ms. Newsome as she stands for justice like many NAACP activists including Henry David Thoreau, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and numerous Americans who have engaged in civil disobedience,”
“The NAACP calls on state prosecutors to consider the moral inspiration behind the civil disobedience of this young practitioner of democracy,” NAACP President Cornell William Brooks said in a statement. “Prosecutors should treat Ms. Newsome with the same large-hearted measure of justice that inspired her actions.”
The Charlotte, North Carolina, branch of the NAACP posted a statement Saturday on Newsome’s behalf asking supporters to host nonviolent demonstrations in their own communities instead of visiting Columbia.
‘We can’t continue like this another day’
South Carolina lawmakers raised the universally known Confederate emblem over the State House in 1961, officially in honor of the war’s centennial. But it was also a time of growing momentum in the civil rights movement, and white leaders in the South were digging their heels in against efforts to end segregation. For nearly 40 years it flew under the U.S. and state flag, above the seat of government, until a compromise moved it to a flagpole next to a soldiers’ monument.
That move didn’t satisfy opponents, who maintained that the flag’s display on the grounds amounted to tacit state endorsement of white supremacy.
But efforts to remove it had gone nowhere in the years before the awful night of June 17 — when nine people who had gathered for Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston were massacred. All nine victims were African-American, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who also was a state senator.
The motivations of the shooter, 21-year-old Dylan Roof, became clear after his arrest the next day in North Carolina. A website surfaced showing a racist manifesto and 60 photos of Roof, some of them showing him waving Confederate flags while armed.
The revelations spurred politicians around the South to re-examine the placement of the Confederate flags on everything from government property to state-issued license plates amid national debate over its meaning. South Carolina’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, on Monday called for the removal of the flag, saying that while it is “an integral part of our past, [it] does not represent the future of our great state.” Among the politicians joining her at the announcement were U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both Republicans, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn.
State representatives on Tuesday resoundingly voted to allow debate on a bill to bring it down. Until such a bill passes, the flag continues to fly — except for a brief time around dawn Saturday.
In a statement through activist group #BlackLivesMatter, Newsome explained her actions, saying, “we can’t wait any longer.”
“We can’t continue like this another day,” Newsome said. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.”
About 60 people attended the pro-flag rally, according to the Charleston Post and Courier. Those in attendance said they hope Newsome is punished for her actions.
“We consider this flag as a flag of heritage not hate,” 75-year-old Greenville resident Leland Browder told the newspaper. “I don’t hate anybody. We feel like it’s a part of our history. It’s a part of the South.”