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In taking down the Confederate flag, why Bree Newsome’s biblical quote matters

Police arrested Bree Newsome on June 27, 2015, after she scaled a flag pole outside the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia and removed the Confederate flag. (Video: Andrea Densky)

“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”

On Saturday morning, activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome, armed with climbing gear, scaled the flagpole and brought down the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina’s capitol grounds.

Her act alone was awe-inspiring. The photo of her detaching the Confederate battle flag will be one for the ages. She was arrested and charged with defacing a monument. And she did it all with a smile.

The flag was replaced and hoisted up again after she was taken to jail. (Update: She was reportedly released on Sunday)

But I’m particularly struck by her choice quote from the Bible as she came down from the pole, as police officers stood ready to take her away.

In society’s rush to fawn over how quickly and easily blacks turn to the Bible, and forgive and reconcile with those who seek to dehumanize black people, to harm black people, to destroy our sense of security at our places of worship, there is the tendency to ignore the psychological and spiritual price racial terror and white supremacy extracts from black people by striking fear into our hearts.

For black people in America, there has been a lot to feel afraid of lately. Are my family and friends at black churches safe? Can a black girl who looks like me go to a swimming party in a McKinney, Tex.? Will my brother and black male friends be safe at a “routine” traffic stop? Will my college-age friends be safe from chants of segregation and lynching from fraternity boys?

The media was filled with headlines riffing on the themes of “Grace in Charleston,” “Forgiveness in Charleston,” aiming to celebrate the capacity of black folks to forgive yet another unspeakable act of violence. We were enthralled by President Obama, the first black U.S. president, singing “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for S.C. State Senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney, allegedly gunned down by white supremacist Dylann Roof this month at the Mother Emanuel AME church.

I admit Obama’s eulogy in South Carolina was a welcome tonic, easing, if only a little bit, the pain and weight of what happened in Charleston. But, as barely two weeks have gone by since the massacre in that church, many black folk are still hurt, angry and afraid.

In her Bible quotation, Newsome, a black woman, is asking, “Whom shall I fear?” while peacefully taking down the Confederate battle flag, a symbol of white supremacy and racial terror for generations. By her words, she is refusing to fear the hatred behind the symbol, the longstanding system in America of the forced labor of blacks under the threat of the most unspeakable forms of torture, terror, violence and death. She is refusing to fearfully tolerate the symbol that 21-year-old Roof (who in addition to allegedly assassinating a black political official, gunned down eight other innocent black people) proudly waved in photos.

She is also asking, “Whom shall I fear?” in the face of police officers in the same state where months ago, a white officer gunned down an unarmed black man in the back as he fled, yet another example of a person of color victimized by police brutality. Her words stand as powerful example of defiance in the faces of agents of the state in America, who historically have taken black lives with impunity for generations.

And she is asking “Whom shall I fear?” as at least six black churches across the South have gone up in flames in the past week following the Charleston massacre.  At least three of the fires have been determined to be set by arsonists. Federal agencies are determining whether a number of the fires are possible hate crimes.

Finally, Newsome is asking “Whom shall I fear?” as the Ku Klux Klan has reportedly been trying to increase its recruitment of members since the Charleston massacre. People are distributing flyers and leaving bags of candy on lawns urging others to join the white supremacist group in several states. The Ku Klux Klan, in our national consciousness, still remains the embodiment of racial hatred, terror, and violence. And in 2015, we have plenty of evidence that America faces its biggest terrorism threat from extremists espousing anti-government zealotry and white supremacist ideologies — since 9/11, nearly twice as many people have been killed by homegrown terrorists than by radicalized Muslims.

For all of us, Bree Newsome moves beyond the trope of the knee-jerk, saintly forgiveness expected of black Americans subjected to violence. Importantly, she stands for us all as an example of the Bible as blueprint for nonviolent resistance in the face of blatant social injustice around the world.

As the darkness of racism and fear hangs heavily in our national atmosphere right now, Newsome calls upon the Lord as divine light as she boldly takes down the Confederate battle flag that was raised in South Carolina as resistance against civil rights progress. Bree Newsome should inspire us all. She is a modern figure of quiet dignity, courageous resistance and true grace under pressure of biblical proportions.