When Bree Newsome removed the Confederate flag from a flagpole in South Carolina, it was the duty of an activist who was tired of the rhetoric around removal of the flag and created an opportunity to do it herself. Her act dramatized the need for action by others and shined a light on the pain that was being inflicted on thousands of people as the flag waved in the wind.
But the same day that Bree Newsome removed that flag and was escorted to jail, the flag was lifted again by a Black man in an unfortunate and cruel twist of fate. Legislators and other elected officials had been talking about the removal of the flag for some time, but were unable to have it removed before the funeral of their colleague Rev. Clementa Pinckney. However, last week, the debate was finally settled as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley signed a bill removing the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds.
The contrast between the brave act of Bree Newsome and the acts of the South Carolina state legislature and governor underscore the significance that all of us play in changing the issues we see in our communities and challenging the status quo. There is a difference between a demonstration – an act designed to call attention to an issue and legislation – and the process of creating changes in the law. Both are needed and are often linked together.
Many times, people ask why members of the National Action Network march. People say they are tired of marching or claim that marching is “so 1960s.” But in reality, marching and other forms of demonstration like die-ins and walk-outs are just as effective now as they have ever been, if you understand the goals of demonstration. Anyone who thinks mass action alone is going to achieve a change in the laws is mistaken. Demonstration will call attention to the laws that need to be changed, but there has to be an inside force that will create the space for legislation.
When people think of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the things most people focus on are the speech by Dr. King calling for America to realize its dream for all citizens, and the hundreds of thousands of people who descended on Washington D.C.’s National Mall. But what many people may not know is that the day of the march, organizers including Dr. King, John Lewis, Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, and others met with members of Congress prior to the march to present their demands with President Kennedy after. They realized that the bodies standing on the mall were there to demonstrate the will of the people. As agents of the populace, it was the job of the elected officials to respond with legislation, which happened in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
There are many items on today’s Black agenda, including voting rights protections, criminal justice reform, educational equity, job creation, minimum wage increase, pay equity, support for entrepreneurs, health care, hunger, housing, and technology, among others. As a community, we need to leverage our ability to demonstrate the issue in a way that calls the attention of legislators on local, state, and federal levels that can create change that lasts beyond the moment, but change that lasts for generations. There is a collaborative effort between demonstration and legislation. When people question, “Is this a moment or a movement?” they are asking if the efforts of the people can transcend the brief period in time to ultimately create lasting change.
That can only be realized when laws are passed that cement the transformation in place.
Janaye Ingram is the National Executive Director of National Action Network (NAN) and oversees NAN’s action agenda and legislative advocacy work under Founder and President, Rev. Al Sharpton. In this role, Ingram focuses on issues such as education, criminal justice, housing, technology, economic development and healthcare, among others.