Artist and activist Bree Newsome, who rose to national fame when she removed the Confederate flag from the capitol building in Columbia, S.C., says the debate about Confederate monuments is really about justifying systemic racism. (Gillian Brockell,Kate Woodsome,Jesse Mesner-Hage/The Washington Post)

The fall of a regime is often marked by the falling of monuments. On July 9, 1776, upon hearing the Declaration of Independence read for the first time, a mob of American colonists descended upon a statue of King George III in Bowling Green park in Lower Manhattan, tied ropes around the sculpture and pulled it to the ground. The lead from the statue was then turned into bullets and muskets in preparation for the Revolutionary War.

Nearly 250 years later, the nation born from that revolution is embroiled in controversy over the toppling of a different set of statues. More than 700 monuments honoring the Confederacy, a failed attempt to secede from the United States for the purpose of maintaining chattel slavery, are scattered across the nation. Most were built in the early 20th century, when the terroristic practice of lynching was at its peak and the burgeoning civil rights movement was met with fierce resistance that would be maintained until federal intervention decades later.

The era of mandated racial segregation came to an end more than 50 years ago, yet symbols memorializing that era still haunt many public squares and have increasingly becoming the site of public clashes. Images from Charlottesville last weekend of white supremacists carrying Confederate banners, shouting racist slogans and beating counterprotesters in the street, resembled archive footage from the civil rights movement. The tragic death of Heather Heyer is part of a long history of white allies to the cause of racial justice murdered by white supremacists while protesting for equal rights. But unlike in 1964, there is no Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House who can push legislation to address these issues. The current occupant is more like George Wallace, failing to condemn the actions of white supremacist terrorists and in many ways openly defending them. Leaders who have largely been complicit in the rise of President Trump to this point are finally offering words of condemnation but little in the way of action.

Bree Newsome climbs a flagpole to remove the Confederate battle flag in front of the statehouse in Columbia, S.C. (Bruce Smith/Associated Press)

We were confronted by a similar moment more than two years ago when the state of South Carolina refused to lower the Confederate battle flag on its statehouse grounds in the wake of a white supremacist terror attack at a church in Charleston. For several days, the flag flew above the national and state flags even as the casket of a slain black state representative was paraded through the state capitol. The flag remained at full-staff until I scaled the pole to remove it on June 27, 2015.

The image of me holding the unhooked flag went viral, and my name appeared in news stories across the world, but I was actually one of several activists and organizers who worked together to make the flag removal possible. Five days before the action, we huddled in a small living room. Half of us in the room had never met the other half before that evening and were brought together by a mutual friend. A small collective of people from various backgrounds and walks of life, we were multiracial with different gender and sexual identities, different faiths and varying political beliefs. What united us was a moral calling and a commitment to doing the right thing, recognizing the power we had as individuals coming together to act as one. With awareness of history and belief in a better future, we decided to attack a symbol of systemic racism with a direct action that symbolized its dismantling. We almost immediately settled on removing the flag, both as an act of civil disobedience and as a demonstration of the power people have when we work together.

Similar actions are being taken across the nation today. On Monday, activists in Durham, N.C., toppled a Confederate statue outside of a former courthouse. When warrants were issued for the arrests of activists, more than a hundred people marched with the activists to the courthouse demanding they be arrested, too.

Our nation faces a fork in the road and a decision to either continue down the same path of systemic racism or to confront our past honestly. It will increasingly fall upon everyday people to do the right thing. With the same spirit of those New Yorkers who toppled the statue of King George, recognizing that people had the power and ability to rule themselves without a king, we should topple all monuments to the Confederacy. And as debate intensifies over dismantling monuments and systems of white supremacy, there must be equal energy and attention given to discussion of what we are actively building in their place, recognizing that this nation isn’t free unless and until all who reside here are free and have equal rights — not as an ideal, but as a lived reality.