Jun 28, 2015

Bree Newsome Takes it Down

An AP photo of Bree Newsome's arrest after she removed the Dixie flag from the South Carolina State House.
By now, the video of Bree Nelson removing the Dixie flag from the South Carolina State House has surely gone viral. (If you have not seen it, go to YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gr-mt1P94cQ.) Shortly after Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the state of Georgia began flying that flag, and in a celebration to mark the beginning of the Civil War, South Carolina did the same in April of 1961, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. During last week's "Meet the Press," Washington Post writer Eugene Robinson, referring to that 1961 incident, said the Dixie flag "was flown as a symbol of massive resistance to racial desegregation."

Ms. Newsome's actions this morning reversed the battle cry of the Dixie flag: Now it is a call to action for all Americans, the beginning of a new fight in the longest running war in our country. It began before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, with our genocide of American Indians in one of the biggest land grabs in history, and our trafficking of Africans in the slave trade that established the fortunes of many Northern and Southern families. Our ownership of those slaves furthered the growth of our capitalist economy. Institutionalized racism, the cause of economic disparities in America, continue to benefit the enfranchised among us, most of whom are white. But Ms. Newsome's actions are not intended to divide us.

In the summer of 1964, the racism and hatred that the Dixie flag represents killed two Jewish men, Andrew Goodman and Michael Shwerner, and their colleague, a Black man named James Earl Chaney, right before the start of the Congress of Racial Equality's voting registration campaign in Mississippi. I was a school-girl at the time, and my family had just moved to the suburbs. We were the first with a Spanish name to live in that neighborhood. A Black family with two children arrived shortly afterward. The father was an anesthesiologist and the mother a nurse. One night, shortly after the bodies of the three activists were found, we were awakened by the siren that called our volunteer fireman to work. A cross was burning on the lawn of the Black family's home.

The next morning, my father, who was accustomed to awakening before sunrise for work, was making so much noise in the kitchen, that my brother and I were unable to sleep. It was Sunday, the day my Italian mother made spaghetti bolognese, a dish my father looked forward to all week. But we found him at the stove. My brother asked him what he was doing. "Making arroz con pollo," he replied. "Later, we are going to take it down the street. You two will come with me." We did not have to ask what he meant; we would be giving that food to the Black family, even though we had never met them. They worked odd hours and did not do their own landscaping, nor had they given a lawn party yet, which were the usual ways that neighbors got to meet each other.

After my brother and I returned from Sunday mass, we found my father waiting for us, clad in his dress pants and a white shirt and tie, not his usual attire. He was a working man. My mother was fussing with what to put the arroz con pollo in—she was not sure we had a Tupperware large enough for the rice and the whole chicken my father had cooked. My brother, four years my junior, did not understand the errand. "We are going there to erase the hate that made some idiot burn a cross on their lawn," my father said. Finally, we were ready, and my father marched us down the middle of the block, slowly, I realized, so that all the other neighbors would see us.

My father knew what it was to be discriminated against, and so did I at that point. Even though we were white and European, there was terrible discrimination then against all people of Spanish heritage. I felt it in grammar school and, later, in the 1970s, as a young college student; when I called for a rental apartment, landlords would hang up on me after I gave my name. But no one had ever burned a cross on our lawn.

On that blistering summer day in 1964, it felt like a very long walk down the street, although it was no more than a few hundred feet. We saw our neighbors peeking out of their curtains. Only Mrs. Collins, our next-door neighbor, waved to us. Suddenly, I felt proud to be walking with my father. As we reached the Black family's house (I feel I should not reveal their family name), the door was opened by a beautiful woman, obviously the mother, flanked by her two toddlers. I will never forget the smile on her face. "I'm sorry," she said, "but my husband is working or he would be welcoming you, too." Wordlessly, my father handed her the two pieces of Tupperware that contained the arroz con pollo. "I like chicken," she said, in a pronounced Southern accent, and my father beamed, but still did not utter a word.

She asked us to come in for an ice tea, and that is when my father finally spoke. "Thank you, but we can't because my children have just come from church," he said. "They  haven't eaten so that they could receive communion." It was true, but neither my brother nor I would have refused an ice tea. Then, as we were about to leave, my father added, "I'm sorry for what happened to you." She replied: "I knew that already. I hope this will not be the last time you come to our door." Two weeks later, my mother found the two Tupperware bowls on our porch with a short note: "The chicken was delicious, but your kindness is what we will never forget." The family had moved. More than fifty summers have passed since then, but today as I watched Bree Newsome climb that flagpole in South Carolina, I remembered my father, a proud veteran of World War II, and our long, slow walk to a neighbor's home. We did not speak of it often, yet when we did, he would say: "Until everyone in this country feels safe, none of us is safe."