More than a century before anyone would have dreamed a Twitter possible, there were women like Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
Eloquent, they were. It’s hard to imagine translating their words into a Twitter hashtag. But for most of their lives, these woman loudly and fiercely proclaimed that black lives matter.
Wells-Barnett, born enslaved in 1862, did so in 1884 when she sued (and won) over being forced from the first-class rail seat she had purchased into a segregated train car. She did so again when she complained publicly about conditions black children endured in Memphis’ segregated schools. She was fired for her efforts.
History knows her best as the independent journalist who waged a decades-long campaign to stop the epidemic of lynchings in the late 19th century and early 20th century and who wrote extensively on white race riots that killed hundreds of blacks and destroyed their homes and businesses. Her efforts to make black lives matter began after a friend was among three black men murdered by a Memphis mob for defending their grocery that had competed with white-owned businesses.
Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the modern #BlackLivesMatter movement, is well aware of whose shoulders she stands on. She once wrote on her Facebook page that she is in a “relationship” with Tubman, her spiritual link to a long struggle. Tubman was a former slave who was an abolitionist, an extraordinarily successful Underground Railroad conductor who guided black souls out of slavery and a Union spy. After the Civil War, she pleaded that newly freed men and women starving in encampments around Washington, D.C. be given land out west where they could work and lead dignified lives. The response confirmed that blacks lives mattered less than the availability of cheap labor.
“This work is not new,” said Cullors, who is scheduled to speak at Duke University on Oct. 28. America has had a “long and arduous movement” for black people in some cases just to be able to keep breathing and to have lives of dignity and respect, she said during a telephone interview earlier this week. “We have been among the most creative, persistent and resilient communities in fighting for ourselves.”
Black Lives Matter has three co-founders, Cullors and young black activists Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. In discussing the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, Garza wrote the words “Black Lives Matter” on social media. Cullors created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter soon afterward.
The movement gained momentum in 2014 with a string of deaths of black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, New York and Cleveland. Mass protests of the incidents included hundreds of people carrying placards stating “Black Lives Matter.” The hashtag provided a means for blacks and others to discuss on social media the issues surrounding the killings and to organize protests.
Some have questioned whether Black Lives Matter is more than a social media phenomenon.
Cullors, 32, has a background in social activism. The Los Angeles native is the founder of Los Angeles-based Dignity and Power Now, which advocates for people in prison and their families, and is director of truth and reinvestment at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif.
Black Lives Matter, Cullors said, is not a “moment” but a movement that broadens the conversation about state violence to all of the ways blacks are intentionally kept powerless. Black Lives Matter has no centralized structure or hierarchy, but encourages people to form chapters in their communities to address from the grass-roots issues such as police abuses, mass incarceration and lack of educational opportunities. “There are over 26 Black Lives Matter chapters across the globe organizing a new generation of black leadership.”
On a national level, Black Lives Matter has had an impact on the 2016 presidential campaign by aggressively interrupting appearances by Democratic candidates and forcing some to formally address the core issues presented by the movement. And it has been effective enough to draw a backlash. “We’ve had multiple backlashes,” Cullors says, “from Twitter trolls to (Fox News commentator) Bill O’Reilly” to the glib retort “all lives matter.”
Recently, the hashtag #blackspring, evocative of the 2010 Arab spring, has appeared with #blacklivesmatter. Cullors said #blackspring is about not looking at the events of the past two years as isolated incidents but as institutionalized patterns that require proactive, aggressive responses.
“Black are not a monolithic group,” she said on a May edition of The HuffPost Show. “But we are facing something that’s extreme – and that’s poverty, that’s homelessness, that’s higher rates of law enforcement invading our communities day in and day out – and we are uprising. And so this Black Spring is about really talking about a national uprising.”
Patrisse Cullors at Duke
Wednesday, 7 p.m. at Page Auditorium, Duke University.
The event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required from the Page Auditorium box office.