Activist Bree Newsome described the civil rights struggle led by Dr. Martin Luther King as “the very same crisis we find ourselves addressing today” in an address in Battell Chapel on Wednesday evening, Newsome’s speech was part of the University’s monthlong series to honor King’s legacy, 50 years after his assassination.
During the address, Newsome emphasized that the civil rights struggle did not end with King’s assassination or the enactment of certain laws, but continues to this day.
Newsome rose to national attention in June 2015 when she climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina capitol building and removed the Confederate flag, nine days after Dylann Roof massacred nine black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Through her work [Newsome] inspires the next generation of social activists,” Yale College Dean Marvin Chun said in opening remarks. “This year’s address has special significance on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, [and] we can look at the road started in Montgomery, and so much ground has been covered, but there is so much work still left to do and it falls to all of us.”
Newsome is a political activist and award-winning filmmaker whose work focuses on combating institutional racism and incidents of violence against young black Americans. She is a cofounder of the grassroots organization, The Tribe, which was created after the 2014 protests in Ferguson to address issues of systemic racism and inequality in Charlotte, North Carolina, and in 2016, she was awarded the NAACP Image Award.
The monthlong celebration series takes its title from King’s book, titled “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community,” which was published posthumously and champions human rights as well as a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of social justice issues in the U.S.
Peter Crumlish, executive director of Dwight Hall, said he and others on the MLK Planning Committee sought to create a celebration that would “ask what’s going on in our country and world, where we are and where we need to go.” Dianne Lake ’16 LAW ’20, graduate assistant for Intercultural and Social Justice Programming at the Afro-American Cultural Center, added that Newsome was invited to Yale because of her courage and ability to speak truth to power.
“We thought deeply about the future change can do,” Lake said. “We thought about courage, and we searched for someone who has spoken truth to power, put their body on the line and inspired the younger generation to activism.”
Addressing an audience of around 400 people, Newsome said that taking down the Confederate flag was an act aimed at invoking basic human principles, and not just at confronting the issue of racial inequity in the U.S.
“It was not about taking down flag, but about abolishing the spirit of hatred and oppression in all its forms,” Newsome said. “It’s about human rights.”
Newsome also spoke about the visual power of social justice movements, saying she thought about what she wanted “to communicate visually and symbolically” through her act of defiance in 2015. Describing her feat, Newsome said she and her fellow activists decided that a white man should stand at the bottom of the flagpole while Newsome, a black woman, climbed to the top.
Malenky Welsh, an attendee and aspiring actress, said that hearing Newsome describe how she merged her political activism and artistry “was really striking” and inspired her to “find a way to mesh the two together.” Lake also praised Newsome, calling her a “social justice storyteller.”
After the address, the New Haven Board of Alders honored Newsome for her political activism and courage. Jeanette Morrison, the vice president of the Board of Alders, presented Newsome with a certificate indicating formal recognition, and encouraged her to continue her work.
“Just hearing her speak about her start into activism inspired me to start my own journey into activism,” said Remy Welsh, an attendee and junior at a local New Haven public high school.
Welsh added that as a young woman of color, she believes it is especially important to speak up for what she believes in.
Corey Menafee, an African American dining hall worker who in 2016 shattered a stained glass panel depicting slaves picking cotton in Hopper College, known as Calhoun College at the time, also attended the event. Menafee said he felt “very excited and very proud” to have heard Newsome speak and agreed with her message that the civil rights struggle continues, and will continue well into the future.
“A lot of times we like to view the civil rights movement as something that was in place and has served its purpose and is history, when in all actuality, it’s an ongoing practice from generation to generation,” Menafee said. “The work is never done.”
Chloe Glass | firstname.lastname@example.org