“We need to understand black women as the integrating force within the Democratic Party, an institution and a political party that historically was preserved for white men,” Ms. Newsome Bass said. “The things that black women say become the talking points for politicians, but we don’t really have much political leverage beyond people calling for a kind of token representation from us in certain places or playing the role of mascot.”
Ms. Newsome Bass, 35, was born in Durham, N.C., and raised in Columbia, Md., by black women who took their civic responsibility seriously, she said, recalling going into the voting booth with her mother as a child. Her family, loyal to the Democratic Party, instilled in her early on that voting was her right, as was the right to protest and hold those in power accountable. She also understood that all too often for African-Americans, these rights have been withheld. The history of slavery, imprisonment, gerrymandering and other efforts to disenfranchise black voters, points to a single question, for Ms. Newsome Bass: “Why is black citizenship still a question for the United States?”
She studied art and, in 2011, while she was an artist in residence at Saatchi and Saatchi in New York, she marched with Occupy Wall Street. In the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, she went to Florida with a group of youth activists and protested at the State Capitol. In 2013, Ms. Newsome Bass staged a sit-in at the office of Thom Tillis, then a state representative and now a senator, who was supporting a bill that said student IDs weren’t a valid form of identification for voting. The bill also ended same-day voter registration.
For the past three years, Ms. Newsome Bass has been focused on housing rights. The goal of her activism, she said, is to shift power. She has also traveled across the country, speaking about organizing and activism to communities trying to organize themselves. After the 2016 killing of Keith Lamont Scott by the police in Charlotte, and the uprising that followed there, she recognized that the community was good at mobilizing in the short term to respond to things like Mr. Scott’s killing, but needed a more sustainable way to have an impact. Through those efforts, she has worked with down-ballot candidates and helped with the election of a record number of black sheriffs in the state.
Justice Anita Earls of the Supreme Court of North Carolina has seen Ms. Newsome Bass’s brand of organizing and activism through her work as a board member of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, an organization the judge founded. Listening to the artist and activist speak, Judge Earls said, “you know you are in the presence of someone who powerfully brings their entire heart and soul to the service of freedom and equality.”