Since its founding in 2013, Black Lives Matter has awakened millions across the globe to how Black people are systematically targeted for violence. The member-led network was formed by three Black women — Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi — in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin. Since then, the movement can claim credit for protests in the name of everyone from Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer in St. Louis, Missouri, in 2014, to Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, this March. Though the organization has renewed what may seem like a new fight for civil rights in the 21st century, it is in every way building on a long history of activism that goes back to slavery.
As University of Pittsburgh historian Keisha N. Blain argues, if we were to draw a line straight from 1619 to the present, it would be clear that Black Lives Matter is one major wave in a larger narrative. “If civil rights ultimately means citizenship rights, then that means that you would be fighting for it for as long as you don’t have it,” Blain told Vox.
But to fully understand the change that Black Lives Matter is effecting today, we also have to look to the 20th century to examine how the movement is advancing the ideology and strategy of Black female justice seekers like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer, and even lesser-known activists like Mary Bumpurs and Veronica Perry, who joined together to fight police violence in the ’80s.
Such an exercise also helps us see where the movement stopped short — and continues to. Blain argues that overlooking Bumpurs and Perry and currently excluding Black women from the police violence debate sets up a false sense of security for Black women. “I’ve had people say to me that as a mother, I should be concerned about my son because police violence is so prominent. And they’re right — I have to think about it,” she says. “But I have to say to them, ‘I have to be concerned about me too.’ I have to tell them, ‘Remember Sandra Bland and Korryn Gaines? People are somewhat startled because they don’t immediately think about those names.”
I talked to Blain, author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, about how Black Lives Matter is advancing the efforts of hundreds of activists who fought for Black liberation in the US and abroad — and how the movement’s impact stands out from past efforts. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
In your book and other writings, you’ve repeatedly said that Black Lives Matter is currently building on a longer history of activism. Can you explain how the organization is doing that with the protests currently underway?
Keisha N. Blain
There are several factors. I focus a bit on Black nationalist politics, and there are several threads that I see between Black nationalist movements of the 20th century and the Black Lives Matter movement.
One is the focus on community control. One of the things that Black Lives Matter activists have been demanding for quite a while is greater community control. Today we’re talking about it within the context of policing. But in general, they have been demanding the need for Black people within Black communities to make their own decisions about how the communities would be controlled and how things will be run, as opposed to having people from the outside impose upon them their strategies and tactics. And we see that certainly in the 1960s context but even earlier to the 1920s, with groups like the Universal Negro Improvement Association [a Black nationalist organization founded by Jamaican activists Amy Ashwood and Marcus Garvey]. These organizations emphasize the importance of Black communities having greater say and autonomy. So, ideologically, we see this thread.
The second connection that stands out to me is the vision of internationalism, which is one of the core ideas of the Black Lives Matter movement. I would say a lot of people don’t focus on it as much as they should. Black Lives Matter activists have been very vocal about showing that the fight to end state-sanctioned violence is not solely a US problem, but it is a global problem. And, not surprisingly, we’ve seen the creation of Black Lives Matter movements in various parts of the world — in London, Berlin, Toronto, and more. That is intentional, and it’s actually to the core of their message.
The movement has previously stated the importance of internationalism and broadening the vision beyond just a national conversation. They’ve expressed the importance of collaborating across nations to demand an end to state-sanctioned violence. This is key to various movements throughout US history. Black political movements have been deeply internationalist in their perspective, whether it’s in the ’60s with civil rights activists connecting their struggles to African liberation struggles or whether it’s even earlier Black activists standing up in defense of Ethiopia. These are the ideological threads.
How do you see Black Lives Matter furthering these ideologies and advancing these threads?
Keisha N. Blain
What is perhaps novel in the contemporary moment is the specific focus on anti-Black law enforcement. If we think of Black Lives Matter as an idea, we can trace the history far back and draw connections to Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin — all of these individuals who were in effect insisting that Black lives matter and that we need to create policies and laws that demonstrate how Black lives matter. In a way, this is part of a larger struggle.
And I’m not suggesting that these early activists didn’t talk about law enforcement; they certainly did. But I would say that the way the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement managed to bring the issue to the forefront, that is a distinct trait. Because we talked about police violence in the past — even someone like Martin Luther King talked about police violence; Hamer talked about it. But it almost didn’t capture people’s attention the way that it captured people’s attention in 2014 or in 2015 after the killings of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown.
So Black Lives Matter, they were almost able to harness the moment as soon as these unfortunate incidents took place. They were able to get people on board, and not just regular American citizens, but politicians — that part is key.
In the 2016 election, I was intrigued by how many candidates, leading up to the election, kept talking about Black Lives Matter, even Republicans. Those in the running before Trump became the nominee were trying to figure out how to weave it in. They recognized the significance of the moment, so they needed to gesture to it in some way without offending their base. And certainly, Democratic nominees were grappling with it, too. Black Lives Matter managed to capture the attention of people, but also of individuals who wield political power. That, to me, is quite distinctive.
What about the pace and speed at which today’s movement is bringing about change? How does it compare to the speed at which movements of the past operated?
Keisha N. Blain
It’s hard to say because I think about history as a very long movement. For example, when we think of the civil rights movement, we generally mean the ’50s and ’60s. But I would argue that you can’t quite understand the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s if you don’t look back to even the ’20s or the ’30s. It’s almost as if you wanted to put a straight line from 1619, which in itself is a troubled date, but imagine that you started there. You could argue that the movement for civil rights began at the very moment that the group of 20 Africans landed in Jamestown. You could make that argument because they arrived at a moment where they didn’t have full political rights and freedom. If civil rights ultimately means citizenship rights, then that means that you would be fighting for it for as long as you don’t have it.
So there are certain gains that took place in the ’50s and ’60s. We can talk about the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Brown decision — all these things matter. But you don’t quite understand how we get to Brown if you don’t look back to some of the earlier efforts to integrate public spaces. You can’t even talk about the Voting Rights Act if you don’t go back to the US Constitution and think about the 14th and 15th Amendments, which were passed in the 19th century. So, when you think about Black Lives Matter, you can think about it as a continual struggle. You could argue, then, that the movement for civil rights has been a very long movement, but the difference is the waves, ebbs, and flows — moments when you’re able to accomplish some things and moments when we struggled before accomplishing some more. That’s why I see Black Lives Matter as an extension. It’s not a direct line.
What about the structure of Black Lives Matter? Early on, people were looking for one central hub of Black Lives Matter or one central leader, but Black Lives Matter made it clear that they were decentralized and spread out, with different organizations all across the country. How does this structure line up with the structure of groups and movements in the past?
Keisha N. Blain
What’s interesting is the structure of Black Lives Matter, actually, in so many ways, encapsulates this idea of group central leadership, which is an idea that comes directly from Ella Baker, a civil rights activist who mentored Black activists in the SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, in the 1960s. This is an organization that actually grew out of a bit of resistance with an earlier movement — the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which is an organization that Martin Luther King Jr. ran.
Both organizations were interesting because in many ways, they demonstrated the generational divide at the time, which is in some ways still reflective today. So SNCC, the younger activists, their approach was very much about avoiding one central leader. The thinking was if you have one leader, one person who represents the voice of the movement, crippling the movement isn’t so difficult. All you have to do is attack their leader. And obviously people figured that out, which is why, unfortunately, Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. And then someone like Malcolm X was assassinated. You have all of these key people who get targeted in order to cripple a movement.
What Ella Baker was saying is we need a kind of movement that is leaderless. But while it was articulated as leaderless, it materialized with multiple leaders — multiple leaders without one necessarily dominating over the other. And it allowed space for people to go from participant to leader in a very rapid moment. You could just be mentored and encouraged by someone to use your gifting — you could just lead within whatever context. We saw that in the 1960s when Ella Baker mentored someone like Fannie Lou Hamer, [a community organizer and co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party]. Now we talk about Fannie Lou Hamer as a leader, but Hamer would not be someone we even talk about were it not for the fact that the movement made space for someone like her to emerge.
So Black Lives Matter is drawing upon that earlier model of Ella Baker. But you and I both know that it doesn’t play out the way you imagine. Because even when we say the movement is leaderless, it doesn’t stop, for example, the media from determining who they think the leader is.
The same people get called over and over again, sometimes overlooking even the founders of Black Lives Matter. There have been situations where there are conversations about the movement where not even one of the original founders [is] at the table and one wonders how that is even possible. Did someone invite them? Did they just immediately go to the men? So even when you try to have a movement that is group-centered in its leadership, external factors impose in ways that you just can’t control.
I’d love to talk more about your focus on Black women and how Black women are building on a unique history of activism. You’ve written about how Black women are being left out of discussions about policing and then how that connects to their activist roots.
Keisha N. Blain
The first thing that I would emphasize is Black women and girls are vulnerable to state-sanctioned violence. It almost seems like an obvious statement, but the sad part is that I don’t think many people fully get it, or even accept it. And I know this to be true because I think about even personal narratives where I’ve had people say to me that as a mother, I should be concerned about my son because police violence is so prominent. And they’re right — I have to think about it.
But I have to say to them, “I have to be concerned about me too.” I have to tell them, “Remember Sandra Bland and Korryn Gaines?” People are somewhat startled because they don’t immediately think about those names. They think about Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, or Mike Brown. And I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t think about those individuals, but the danger is we fall into this thinking that Black men and Black men alone are the ones who are targeted by the police, and [that] maybe gives Black women a false sense of security, though reality tells us otherwise.
I write about this to remind us that this is a problem and simply say that the challenge here is being targeted for Blackness. And that’s whether we’re talking about Black women and girls or Black trans men. If you are Black, you can absolutely lose your life — in an instant — once you have an encounter with the police.
The other part that is key is how people overlook how significant Black women are to the movement against American policing. I mentioned Black Lives Matter and the fact that it was founded by three women. But how about the example of Sean Bell. He was shot in Queens, New York, in 2006 on the morning of his wedding. He unfortunately was never able to get married. The person who emerged following his killing was his fiancé, Nicole Bell, who for more than 10 years and till this day is still fighting to not only keep his memory alive but to bring about some concrete changes. We don’t often talk about Nicole Bell. Or how about Trayvon Martin’s mother?
With the focus on Black men who are targeted by police, we often don’t spend time thinking about all the people they’re connected to, including all the women they’re connected to — the mothers, the sisters, the daughters who then carry the mantle forward to demand justice not just for them but for every single person who lost their life. This includes the mother of Amadou Diallo [Kadiatou Diallo], the daughter of Eric Garner [Erica Garner], who unfortunately passed away, and now [Eric] Garner’s mother, Gwen Carr. The list goes on and on.
I try to get people to understand that you can’t talk about police violence from any angle without centering the ideas, experiences, and activism of Black women.
Can you highlight any women from earlier waves of the struggle who you think show us how Black women today are building on that person’s activism?
Keisha N. Blain
For a few years, I’ve been researching Mary Bumpurs and Veronica Perry. They are two women who people would know about in the context of New York. Mary Bumpurs’s mother, 66-year-old Eleanor Bumpurs, was killed by police in 1984. Police had been called to her home for what was supposed to be a wellness check. She did not want to leave her apartment, as she was having some mental health issues at the time. They wanted to evict her, and she was resisting. The officer at the time said she had a knife and was charging toward him, so he shot her.
A year later, Veronica Perry’s son, Edmund Perry, was shot at age 17 by a plainclothes police officer.
These two women, who didn’t know each other before, actually collaborated. These women came together in the 1980s and decided that they will try to figure out how to change policing in New York City. They organized events and meetings with local officials to talk about changing policies that would push for legislation to stop police killings. They came together to reflect and just be together and support each other. This reminds me of the Mothers of the Movement today. There are so many parallels to the present.
Their story really moves me, but a lot of people don’t know about them. Because these police killings are happening so frequently, the news cycle keeps changing and shifting our focus. But the loved ones of those killed can never shift their attention because it stays with them forever. They keep pushing and demanding changes. If we were to focus on the work that the mothers are doing, you’re able to see this longer history; you can see how the work of the Mothers of the Movement is a part of a longer tradition of Black women trying to figure out how to stop this. Sadly, it keeps happening over and over again. The fact that Gwen Carr showed up at the funeral of George Floyd is a symbol of how the struggle continues.
So what comes next? Can you comment on the kind of change that you see Black Lives Matter bringing forward in this long tradition? What are tangible things that you see happening besides dialogue?
Keisha N. Blain
What Black Lives Matter has been able to do is move the members of the Democratic establishment a bit further to the left. Joe Biden is still very much careful about how he’s even addressing police violence. We’ve seen him go back and forth on it, and he may or may not come to the place where he fully supports protesters who say defund the police. Mass protests work. Historically, we know that those who wield power make decisions sometimes driven by their own personal convictions. But for the most part, they make decisions because people compel them to do it.
Black Lives Matter as a movement is powerful. They may or may not accomplish the tangible goals within their lifetime, but what they are able to do is capture people’s attention. They force people who might otherwise be complacent to listen and consider changing their view. They mobilize people on the ground, who in turn place pressure on leaders to do something. Results from polls that show how many people now support defunding the police are extraordinary. I don’t think it’d be possible without a group like Black Lives Matter shedding light on the problem of policing and doing so since 2014. So people are finally getting it.