On Jan. 31, the Wesleyan community celebrated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a commemoration and program. This year, artist, writer, producer, and activist Bree Newsome delivered the event’s keynote address.
Newsome drew national attention in 2015 when she climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina Capitol building and removed a confederate battle flag. She was arrested for her actions. The flag was originally raised in 1961 as a racist statement of opposition to the Civil Rights movement and lunch counter sit-ins occurring at the time. Newsome’s act of defiance against the culture of white supremacy has been memorialized in photographs, artwork, and film, and has become a symbol of resistance and the empowerment of women.
Much of Newsome’s activism has focused upon incidents of young black people who are unjustly killed and issues related to structural racism. She traveled with a group of youth activists from North Carolina to Florida during the Dream Defenders’ occupation of the statehouse as a protest against the killing of Trayvon Martin. She also participated in an 11-mile march from the Beavercreek, Ohio, Walmart where John Crawford was killed by police to the courthouse in Xenia, Ohio, demanding the release of the footage showing the killing.
Newsome made the following statements during her address:
- “It’s important to acknowledge that reality exists independently of our awareness of what reality is. … It is our awareness of reality that truly empowers us, to be aware of reality as it exists and to also alter those realities.”
- “This time of year has become not just a day but a season of reflection on the life and philosophy of King. Even if certain figures seek to co-opt and dilute King’s message, it only provides opportunity and reason for us to reclaim and reassert that message as the radical empire-challenging message it is.”
- “We cannot allow a false narrative to take hold that says that we have realized the dream of Dr. King when, in city after city, people are still living in substandard housing and earning wages too low to keep up with the cost of living, … when there continues to be more money invested in police and prisons than in education and healthcare.”
- “It’s not possible for us to un-colonize ourselves because we cannot undo history. We cannot undo the process that has resulted in all of us being here in this moment. … We can only decolonize, that is, to dismantle within society and within ourselves, the destructive ideologies and practices of colonialism. That is exactly what King was speaking to when he talked about us being connected in a mutual garment of destiny.”
- “It’s a reminder that continents and borders themselves are really colonialist constructs. The current conflict over borders is a reminder that humanity and human rights has to transcend borders and continents and nations.”
- “Right now we are living out the imagination and the ideas and the dreams of people 200 years ago. … But we need to recognize that the world that exists 200 years from now is not really up to people who live 200 years from now, it’s up to us to determine what that future will be.”
- “I’ve been praised a lot for my courage, but I want to point out that courage is not about the absence of fear, but rather the belief in something greater than that fear and the determination to fight for it. … We are living in times that will demand courage. When people ask me how do I draw hope, how do I stay encouraged, how do I continue to show up? The answer is that I look back. I look back and I look at how my existence here today is owed entirely to the courage of people who came before me. And so, what do I owe myself in that moment and to those who come after me? To exercise courage in this moment.”
Photos of the commemoration are below: (Photos by Nick Sng ’23)