Before those three words became a hashtag and an inspirational rallying cry for a new national movement, they were a heartbreaking plea for simple recognition.
First shared publicly on a Saturday in the summer of 2013 — the day George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin seemed to say the opposite — “Black Lives Matter” was an affirmation of a basic humanity too long denied.
In a recent phone interview, Alicia Garza reflected on the moment she posted “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter” to Facebook, how her friend and fellow activist Patrisse Cullors then shared Black Lives Matter as a hashtag, and why it has resonated so powerfully ever since.
“We live in a world where it’s not actually true,” Garza explained. “To have a message that is affirming of people’s existence, is affirming of people’s experiences.”
That message of affirmation continues to resonate far beyond Garza’s words — and it’s what makes the movement she co-founded (along with Cullors and Opal Tometi) so different from the fights for civil rights that came before. From Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. to Nelson Mandela, social justice movements have always been about more than their courageous and inspirational leaders. It’s the multitude of diverse individuals who unified behind a common cause that propelled movements forward.
But the diversity of those unified individuals wasn’t always so visible — and that’s what sets #BLM and the collective Movement for Black Lives apart from their predecessors. While #BLM has been justifiably hailed for galvanizing a new generation of activists through social media and mobilizing through a more distributed organizational structure, its leaders see their embrace of intersectionality and the foregrounding of multidimensional identities and perspectives as critical to ensuring this movement succeeds.
“Blackness is not a monolith,” Garza said. “There is no one way to be black.”
“THERE IS NO ONE WAY TO BE BLACK.”
“The tactics are new in a sense that technology is new,” Cullors said in a phone interview. “But at the end of the day, black folks have always put their bodies on the line in direct action to ensure that our present realities will be better.”
Visibly inclusive. Garza and her #BLM cofounders are by no means the first women to emerge as leaders in a movement so dominated by patriarchs like MLK and Malcolm X. But the fact that Garza, Cullors and other leaders like Black Youth Project 100’s Charlene Carruthers identify as black, queer feminists is a testament to the current movement’s visible inclusivity.
For Carruthers, intersectionality and inclusivity have always been elements of past civil rights movements, from LGBTQ icons like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin to the drag queens and trans women of color who stood up to police harassment and arrests in the 1966 Compt9on’s Cafeteria riot and the 1969 Stonewall riot.
Whether you identify as “black and queer, black and woman, black and feminist, black and disabled,” Carruthers said in a phone interview, “those most directly impacted by issues have every single right and ability to be leaders.”
As national director of the Black Youth Project 100, which focuses on young black activists aged 18 to 35 years old, Carruthers focuses on political education, leadership development and black liberation based on the idea that “none of us is free until all of us are free,” echoing a familiar refrain of Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King, Jr.
“NONE OF US IS FREE UNTIL ALL OF US ARE .”
That means the fight for transgender rights must be a crucial front in the larger Movement for Black Lives, she said. As Mic’s Unerased project has documented, young black trans women have a one in 2,600 chance of being killed compared to a one in 19,000 chance for the general population.
“We cannot possibly liberate oppressed people across the world — and truly not the United States of America — if we don’t look to one of the groups … of people that have been systematically oppressed through extremely violent means for centuries,” Carruthers said.
On last year’s MLK Day, BYP100 launched a resource called the Agenda to Build Black Futures. Billed as a grassroots “call for change,” the agenda presents an economic justice platform split into six goals that spotlight issues once at the margins of civil rights movements, including valuing “the worth of women’s work” and supporting “trans wealth and health.”
Common cause, collective action. Although today’s movement may be more open and inclusive, Garza still sees differences and divisions that threaten to stall its momentum. She said she hears too many black people disparaging immigrants — even though many immigrants are black. In a recent op-ed published by Mic, Garza asserted that the question of whether or not the movement could be truly inclusive was less a “moral question” than a “practical one” that boils down to this: “Can we build a movement of millions with the people who may not grasp our black, queer, feminist, intersectional, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist ideology but know that we deserve a better life and who are willing to fight for it and win?”
To get there, Garza said, the movement needs to address a distinctly “anti-organization critique” she’s picking up from fellow activists who believe advocacy groups systematically exclude from positions of leadership the very people they are supposed to be helping.
“If we’re just doing the status quo as it has happened through history, lots of people get left behind,” she said, arguing that organizations play a crucial role in exposing young activists to the possibilities of collective action and cultivating the next generation of leaders. She further stressed that point in her op-ed, writing: “This is a moment for all of us to remember who we were when we stepped into the movement — to remember the organizers who were patient with us, who disagreed with us and yet stayed connected, who smiled knowingly when our self-righteousness consumed us.
And as the country adjusts to a new presidential administration, Garza said she expects the next four years to be “a defining moment for this movement.”
“What we do under this regime will define what the next generation has to deal with,” she said. “Every generation has made its own unique contribution, and I think ours are still being written.”