It was, quite literally, the most athletic activist feat during an era in which we have come to celebrate the notion of athlete activism, whatever that is.
“My dad is a former athlete,” she told me from her Raleigh, N.C., home. “That may be where I get it from.”
Newsome Bass, an artist who has married since her act of protest in South Carolina, was as modest about her parentage as she was her bearing on what we’ve witnessed in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Her father is Clarence Newsome of Ahoskie, N.C., one of the first two black scholarship football players at Duke — long before he became a dean at Howard’s School of Divinity. And her feat of derring-do June 27, 2015, presaged the protests in recent weeks that toppled monuments to Confederates, white supremacists such as Washington’s NFL team founding owner George Preston Marshall and Christopher Columbus, whom a former professor of mine, the late Jan Carew, credited as the original sower, accidental or otherwise, of racism on this continent.
Newsome Bass didn’t intend to become an activist. Who does? She grew up in Columbia, Md., during the 1990s, going to school, playing piano, running track and hooping while her father presided at Howard and her mother, Lynne, worked for the Howard County Board of Education, trying to solve the achievement gap. By the time she got to Oakland Mills High, she was concentrating on the arts. She won a National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences scholarship in a short-film competition and went to New York University to study the genre. Her senior year short-film project was a finalist for the same award won there by Spike Lee.
It wasn’t until she gained an artist-in-residency post at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York in 2011 and witnessed the Occupy Wall Street movement that she was moved politically.
“Then in 2013 when the verdict came back in Trayvon Martin,” Newsome Bass explained, referencing the Florida teen armed with candy who was shot and killed by a vigilante later absolved in court, “I was ready to drop everything.”
That turned into chasing one protest of an extrajudicial killing of a black man after another. She relocated to Charlotte, near where much of her family hailed in North Carolina and across the line in South Carolina, and protested after Michael Brown’s death in 2014. She marched 11 miles in Ohio later that year for John Crawford III. She became nauseated at the massacre of nine black members of Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C., not far from where her grandmother was from, by a white man who posed with the Confederate flag.
“That was when we thought,” Newsome Bass said of a group of protesters with whom she had allied, “ ‘Can we take it down?’ ”
She said the group’s members — black, white and Latino — first wondered whether they could get a forklift because the flag was surrounded by a fence. But half the group came from the environmental protection movement, and one of them was acquainted with a Greenpeace activist who was familiar with climbing trees to protest.
“That was how it came to be that the method would be that someone scale the pole,” Newsome Bass recalled. “I felt like I could do it. And we felt I was the most impactful person to do it because my family was from South Carolina, I was a black woman, and because of my experience with media I felt comfortable enough to handle some of the media attention that would come with it.
“From there, it was figuring out all the other roles,” she said. “We needed somebody who could help me over the fence. Be a lookout. We decided it should be a white man … because we wanted to communicate it’s not just the role of the people who are oppressed, but it’s also on the people who have benefited from oppression who have to be a part of this process.”
She had never climbed anything more than a tree as a kid or a rope in gym class. So she took a few days off to learn from the Greenpeace activist.
First, they had to find a similar pole. They tried one outside a Charlotte water park. They tried a lamppost in a park. Finally, they found a flagpole at a school that seemed about right.
“I remember the very first time I tried, I thought, ‘I’m really not sure I’m going to be able to do this,’ ” she said.
But days after the church massacre, she and her crew drove to the South Carolina State House — James Tyson, a white male, in the front passenger seat and her in the back. They dressed like construction workers so as not to call attention.
“We walked over, and James put his hands down so I could climb over the fence,” Newsome Bass said. “I stumbled and injured my hand, but [I had] so much adrenaline, I kept going. By the time [police] took notice and started calling for me to come down, I was already up there.”
She was arrested after coming down, flag in hand.
“[Physicality] was significant,” Newsome Bass said. “Because people see me do this labor of climbing up the pole as symbolic of the struggle to dismantle a white supremacist system.”
A few weeks later, South Carolina removed the flag and stuck it in a museum. And slowly, mostly quietly, other Southern states began removing their memorials to racist terror and tyranny. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted more than 100 Confederate monuments and images removed in the three years after the Charleston massacre. The deconstruction reached a crescendo in the past few weeks as the Black Lives Matter movement turned the recent deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor into a national reckoning on racial injustice.
“The symbols represent an ideology,” Newsome Bass explained. “I don’t see a scenario where we have resolved racism … [while] we still have monuments to the Confederacy up. Seeing these monuments coming down is an indication that we’re moving in the right direction. The shift in the culture and the shift in the mind-set proceeds the shift in the law. That’s always been the case.”
Newsome Bass meet her husband, Marcus Bass, at a protest for Jonathan Ferrell, a former Florida A&M football player who was shot and killed by police in North Carolina.
“There is this real thing about physicality and blackness in the American system that we can’t ignore,” Newsome Bass said. “It was always about physically exploiting us, and it comes up time and again in athleticism and the role of athletes in speaking out against their own exploitation and the exploitation of others.”
But the one whose voice and action resonated most was a black female activist acting athletically at the start.
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