1935 was half a century before Bree Newsome was born and 80 years before she climbed that flagpole to pull down a Confederate flag that stood for slaveholders, racial terror and treason. She and James Tyson her spotter were quickly arrested.
On July 26, 1935 Bill Bailey, a broad-shouldered Irish American seaman and union organizer, decided to pull down the swastika flying from the bow of Nazi Germany’s luxury liner BREMEN anchored in New York harbor. Posing as tourists Bailey and other American seamen came aboard. As his buddies started a fight to distract the ship’s crew, Bailey climbed the flagpole and tore at the flag that represented Nazi persecution of religious, racial and political minorities.
Bailey yanked, his friends battled Nazi sailors, and the swastika would not come loose. “I would have eaten the thing to get it off,” he later told me. Finally the swastika gave way, he threw it into the Hudson and New York police arrested him and his comrades. When Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbles denounced Bailey and demanded protection for his diplomats, Mayor LaGuardia sent along ten Jewish police detectives, further infuriating Goebbles.
The world applauded Bailey’ s brash courage as they did that of Bree Newsome . By the next year Bailey joined The Lincoln Brigade, 2800 other Americans of every race, who rushed to Spain to fight a fascist military take-over orchestrated by Hitler and Mussolini. He fought in an integrated machine gun company. During World War II, he helped liberate the Philippines.
Freedom fighters Bree Newsome and Bill Bailey never met but had a lot in common. Their audacious acts against racial hatred and oppression were four generations apart but remain forever linked by a strong sense some ordinary people have to defend others from injustice and persecution.