The filmmaker reflects on removing the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State House
When the Confederate flag was raised at the South Carolina Capitol building in 1961, the United States was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. While African-Americans demanded an end to segregation, discrimination laws and voter disenfranchisement, the state was commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, fought in part to keep blacks enslaved.
Fifty-four years later, in 2015, when South Carolina lawmakers voted to remove the flag, the state was still contending with racial tension. That year, 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof — photographed waving the Confederate flag — murdered nine people in the black Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston.
Three years later, the country as a whole remains embattled, with high-profile police killings of black citizens, a reported increase in hate groups and explosive protests like the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and self-professed alt-right members in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“It's in the air,” said activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome, who will speak at the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD) on Wednesday, March 21, ahead of the Columbus International Film & Animation Festival. Newsome famously scaled the flagpole at the South Carolina Capitol building and took the Confederate flag down prior to its official removal. She was subsequently arrested and charged with defacing monuments on state Capitol grounds.
“I was just in Charleston recently, and it's still very raw in terms of healing from the massacre,” said Newsome, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina. “And even though the flag was taken down … the underlying issues still remain. And so we still have a long haul ahead of us.”
Though the Charleston Church Massacre prompted Newsome to act, she had been involved in activism for years. She marched with Occupy Wall Street, protested discriminatory voter legislation in North Carolina and got involved with the Black Lives Matter movement. Today, she continues to speak out against racism using her considerably larger platform.
“I'm mainly speaking from my perspective of organizing … at the community level,” she said. “We really have a breakdown on the federal level right now. … During the '60s Civil Rights Movement, you could actively campaign and effectively campaign for federal civil rights legislation. We don't really have that right now. And so I think that's why you see so many people really resorting to local solutions.”
Newsome, a graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, can also share her perspective as an artist, which is why CCAD invited her to speak. “I think she'll really be able to speak about how those two parts of her identity are connected,” said CCAD President Melanie Corn.
Newsome's appearance is the first event in CCAD's new four-part “Art. Design. Values.” series. The programming is an outgrowth of Corn's strategic plan, which highlights four values for the college: inspiration, respect, positivity and accountability.
“We didn't really change our mission as an institution, but we realized that CCAD didn't have very strongly articulated values,” Corn said. “Not only are we educating students to join the creative workforce, but we're also educating them to be creative citizens for the world.”
That also entails giving students the resources to be a “positive force for good in their culture and community,” Corn said.
Future events include appearances by Syrian-born poet Sara Abou Rashed and author Julie Lythcott-Haims. Corn said the school was intentional about bringing in diverse speakers to represent the increasingly diverse student body and Columbus community.
“I think that art in itself is inherently political,” said Newsome, who is planning to write a book about her experiences since removing the Confederate flag. “Even if, as an artist, you are making some kind of performance that's completely escapist … that's still political in a sense. … Art never really exists separately from the time and setting in which it's made.”