After 45 minutes sitting in an IHOP parking lot in Columbia, Bree Newsome and James Tyson got a text telling them the coast was clear.
The two 30-year-old Charlotte activists, who had met only a few days before, hustled toward the flagpole bearing the South’s most controversial Confederate flag. Tyson braced himself so Newsome, strapped into climbing gear, could use his leg to jump the 4-foot fence.
It was a drill their team had practiced secretly in and around Charlotte for two intense days. At one point, when Newsome was climbing a light pole on the U.S. National Whitewater Center grounds early in the morning, they were confronted by a staffer and concocted a story about preparing for a friend’s surprise party.
On June 27, when the duo went for the flag flying over South Carolina’s State House, a photographer, videographer and media team were on hand to make sure the images flooded the nation.
But when Newsome found herself alone on the pole, with police yelling for her to come down, the woman who was about to become an icon of new-generation activism tapped her roots in the deepest history of civil rights struggles.
She began to pray aloud. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” she called out as she descended the pole.
The action changed Newsome’s life in a matter of hours. By the time she and Tyson emerged from jail later that day, she was a national celebrity. Some called her a lawbreaker and publicity-seeker; many more hailed her as a model of courage and class.
Tyson, who stood quietly at the base of the pole while she climbed, remained in the background. That was the plan, to show white support without dominating.
“Bree became a hero to a whole community that needed a hero,” he said Sunday. “Black America needs to see that white people are willing to step up and put some skin in the game.”
In the immediate aftermath, they were swept into a national media campaign, which included appearances on “Good Morning America” and “The Nightly Show.” As they returned to Charlotte to contemplate their next moves in what Newsome describes as “an intense summer,” both told their story to the Observer.
Trauma, then resolve
Newsome was already immersed in civil rights and social justice when nine African-Americans, including state senator and civil rights leader Clementa Pinckney, were shot and killed in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church on June 17. A 21-year-old white supremacist has been charged in the massacre.
Newsome works for Ignite NC, a group working to organize young people on a range of issues, and is part of an informal network known as The Tribe that came together after last summer’s racial turmoil over a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo.
Newsome said she had thought about the parallels between her work and that of her parents’ generation, but never felt it so deeply as she did after the Charleston massacre. “I never really had the sense of being a civil rights worker as being something that could threaten your life,” she said.
She attended a prayer vigil at Charlotte’s Little Rock AME Zion Church the next evening as a mourner. But Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP President Corine Mack called her to join the faith leaders who were speaking.
Christian faith is central to Newsome’s commitment to justice, she says, though she avoids flaunting it in an activist community where some see religion as part of a repressive system. That evening she got the church Bible and read from Isaiah 58 about the call “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free.”
A few days later she got a call from Todd Zimmer, a California-based environmental activist who has worked in Charlotte. She attended a meeting of nine or 10 people who had a strategy to take down the Confederate flag that had continued to fly at full height on the State House lawn, even as American and South Carolina flags were lowered in mourning.
They discussed the fact that S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and other state officials had agreed it was time to take the flag down. But they agreed that action was too slow.
Newsome wasn’t a climber, but she volunteered to learn. After the trauma of the massacre, she said, the idea of literally taking removal of the flag into her own hands “just feels like hope.”
Rooted in the land
Tyson, known to many as Jimmy, was also invited to that meeting.
He traces his passion for environmental protection to his love of the land in northwest Charlotte where he grew up – and threats to the groundwater that fills the family’s well. He got a degree in environmental chemistry from Warren Wilson College and worked with such groups as the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, Occupy Charlotte and Charlotte Environmental Action.
Tyson says he’s a veteran of “direct action” such as staging coal-ash protests outside Duke Energy’s headquarters and blocking coal roads in West Virginia. He says he doesn’t support and has never engaged in violence (a criminal record check shows no violence-related charges against him), but he landed on Homeland Security’s terrorist watch list. When he was pulled over on a traffic charge at the start of the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, he spent three days in jail after the arresting officer asked that he be held for the duration of the event.
Tyson raises chickens, horses and organic vegetables on a small farm near the house where he grew up. He works carpentry jobs and has traveled to the Caribbean to teach sailing to young people. Even as he criticizes the capitalist system, he acknowledges that he is “one of its privileged sons.”
Newsome and Tyson had been arrested during separate Moral Monday civil disobedience acts in Raleigh, but they hadn’t met until the crew assembled to plan the assault on the Confederate flag. His house became a gathering spot, and a Greenpeace activist with climbing experience flew in to teach Newsome how to scale a pole.
“We did have some support from deep-pocketed allies” who bought the climbing gear and promised to cover bail, said Tyson, who declined to provide details.
Capturing the flag
Saturday, June 27, was the first day the team felt ready to take the flag. The stakeout began around 5:30 a.m., with several members watching the area and texting Newsome and Tyson about the location of officers.
The “time to move” signal came around 6:15 a.m. The goal was for Newsome to get out of reach before officers spotted them. Tyson also hopped the fence, helped her get started and stood lookout, wearing a hard hat and neon safety vest.
Newsome said her prayers and scripture recitations weren’t scripted, but the group had discussed the overall approach: They wouldn’t burn or desecrate the flag. They would hand it over and hope that officials would keep it down, especially with Confederate flag supporters planning to rally under it later that morning, even as funerals continued for the Emanuel massacre victims.
Newsome said her biggest concern as she touched ground was reassuring the officers that she was willing to be arrested and no violence was planned. She raised her arms as Tyson helped unhook her gear.
“I didn’t completely appreciate what a historic moment it was,” she said Sunday. And while she knew the event would make national news, she said she wasn’t prepared for the focus on her: “Maybe that was naive.”
State officials quickly returned the flag to its position. But as Tyson and Newsome were processed in jail, they say, they began to get a sense of the excitement they had generated. Tyson recalls getting “black power fists” from prisoners and even guards.
Although both feared reprisals, so far that hasn’t happened. Newsome said she’s gotten some “social media harassment,” but mostly praise.
“I think it was a cathartic moment for a lot of people,” Newsome said. “It’s been 150 years. I think people are just tired of hatred and bigotry in general.”
Just a symbol
On Monday, as Newsome launched a round of interviews with Charlotte-area media, the South Carolina legislature began debate on taking the Confederate flag down.
Its removal would be a victory, but hardly the end of the Carolinas’ struggle with racism, Newsome and Tyson said.
While her action was dramatic, Newsome said people who are serving lunches to poor children during the summer and otherwise working in their communities are just as important. She hopes Charlotte can become a model of positive community engagement, even as it faces the challenge of an upcoming trial of a white police officer charged with shooting an unarmed black man to death.
“We don’t want our community to burn to the ground,” she said. “A riot is the last desperate lashing out of a community. We don’t want that.”
Newsome and Tyson both said even people who aren’t likely to take part in protests can make a difference by confronting racism in their own lives and communities.
“More white people need to stand up,” Tyson said. “If we don’t we should be ashamed of ourselves.”