Bree Newsome and the True Meaning of Civil Disobedience

As she scaled the flagpole on the state capital grounds in Columbia, South Carolina this morning to remove the Confederate flag, Bree Newsome recited Psalm 27 (“the Lord is my light and my salvation…”) Led away in handcuffs by the police, Newsome recited Psalm 23 (“the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…)

For taking down the Confederate flag, Newsome was arrested. She told police she was prepared to be arrested and did not resist. This is civil disobedience.

Meanwhile, in another galaxy, which regrettably is not far, far away, opponents of yesterday’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage say they will be engaging in civil disobedience against it for the foreseeable future. As I wrote yesterday, they will be spurred and encouraged by the dissenting justices who fueled their imagined persecution with phrases like “judicial putsch” and “marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas,” and the claim the decision will be used “to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy.”

Bree Newsome is a black woman living in America. I think she knows a thing or two about marginalization and vilification.

Activists opposed to marriage equality have long compared themselves to Martin Luther King in what they portray as their civil disobedience to laws protecting equal rights for LGBT people. It’s an argument of those so unwilling or unable to comprehend the enormity of the risks and sacrifices of civil rights activists and so absorbed in their own inflated sense of besiegement that they have the nerve to conflate the two.

This week, more than ever—as Charleston buries the slaughtered from Emanuel AME Church, as at least six black churches in the south have been set aflame in what authorities believe are arsons, as the south is belatedly addressing its long-standing reverence for the flag used to support slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation—it is mind-boggling to see these activists compare their opposition to people who are in love getting married to the struggle for freedom and equality for black people in this country. Yet Brian Brown, in a statement for the National Organization for Marriage yesterday, cited King’s Letter from A Birmingham Jail and its discussion of “the moral importance of disobeying unjust laws, which we submit applies equally to unjust Supreme Court decisions.” (Does it occur to NOM that it is more like opponents of Brown v. Board of Education than like King, in opposing a Supreme Court decision protecting the rights of fellow citizens?)

But the NOM statement compares yesterday’s “immoral and unjust ruling” to the 1857 ruling in “the infamous Dred Scott v Sandford case that African Americans could not become citizens of the United States and determined that the government was powerless to reject slavery.” That’s right, anti-marriage equality activists compare themselves to slaves.

Black people are being terrorized and murdered in their churches. The Supreme Court held that the Constitution requires marriage equality, but that people who oppose it can continue to do so because of their rights protected under the Constitution. Bree Newsome is in jail. Can you name a single person in jail for expressing anti-gay views?