Civil rights activist Bree Newsome gave an invigorating lecture Monday in Cornell’s Sage Hall on the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and on her own motivation for scaling a 30-foot flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse in 2015 to remove the Confederate flag that had flown there for decades.
There was no question-and-answer session after the speech and attendees were asked to quickly leave Sage Chapel because of a suitcase reported as suspicious. But Cornell Police said late Monday that the suitcase did not pose a threat and was simply left by a student who was using the bathroom.
“Upon investigation, officers quickly determined that the bag belonged to a student who was located nearby,” Deputy Chief David Honan, who is taking over next month as chief, said shortly before 10 p.m. “The student told officers that he needed to use the restroom and left the bag because he didn’t want to create a disturbance. The bag was determined to not pose a threat and Sage Chapel will be reopened shortly.”
Newsome, a Charlotte, N.C., native, told Cornellians and Ithacans that she was inspired to take matters into her own hands in 2015 following the murder of nine black parishioners in a Charleston, S.C., church by a white supremacist. At Cornell, she recited the names of all nine who were killed in the Emanuel AME Church during a bible study service.
“They were only doing what Christians are called to do when knocks come to the doors of the church, which is to invite them into fellowship and worship,” she said.
Throughout her speech, Newsome weaved in messages from King, who himself visited campus in 1961. She said peaceful activism does not have to be passive and that non-violence is not the same as being non-disruptive.
“It’s not simply about, as King said, cooperating with the good, it is about actively refusing to participate in and cooperate with oppressive systems,” Newsome said.
Among the catalysts that brought Newsome to activism were the election of Barack Obama in 2008, what she described as subsequent efforts by states to suppress black and Latino voters and the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012. At that point, she got involved with her local NAACP and began organizing, which ultimately led to her planning and carrying out the yanking of the Confederate flag from its perch.
“As I scaled the flagpole, my climb would represent the century-long struggle to dismantle white supremacist systems,” she said, recalling her plans for the action.
She said that history will “rightly remember” James Tyson — a white man who aided in her effort to remove the flag — “alongside the many allies who over the century have risked their own safety and in some cases spilled their own blood in defense of black lives and in the name of freedom.”
“James’s presence would serve as a reminder that the work of dismantling racism cannot be the labor of the oppressed alone, but must be actively undertaken by those who benefit from the perpetuation of racist policies,” she said.
Newsome closed the lecture by emphasizing the need to “decolonize,” and she detailed ways people can be activists in their everyday lives.
She quoted King as saying, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives, and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
“This transformation that King describes that we must undergo as society is the process of decolonization,” Newsome said. “He didn’t use that term, that is in more popular usage today, but that is the process that he is effectively describing.”
She said that despite what many people may think, colonialism has not ended in the U.S. because there has not been a reparations process.
“Modern colonialism or neocolonialism looks like my community in Charlotte, N.C., where those who form the labor to make the city operable struggle to survive,” she said.
Newsome encouraged everyone at the lecture to apply their own talents and abilities to contribute to social activism.
“Social movement looks like thousands of people doing thousands of things in a thousand different places,” she said.
As the crowd clapped at the end of Newsome’s lecture, the Rev. Daniel T. McMullin, director of Cornell United Religious Work, asked people to quickly make their way to the chapel’s two exits because of the unattended suitcase.
“Friends, for reasons of safety, let me invite you to leave the building as quickly and quietly as possible,” he said. “I can’t say more than that, but there is a situation that we need to attend to.”
People calmly made their away along pews and out of the building before later learning that the suitcase was never a threat.
Delmar Fears ’19 said she and others saw the suitcase and were worried that someone was targeting the event because of its civil rights message. Many people were initially shaken after leaving the speech.
“There were some people who were really scared,” said Fears, who previously served as a co-chair of Black Students United. “I have friends who are at [Collegetown Bagels] right now eating their feelings and calming down.”
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs ’19 contributed reporting to this article.