READ: Jelani Cobb on the History—and Future—of Black Lives Matter

By Kenrya Rankin Mar 11, 2016

In a new article for The New Yorker, writer and academic Jelani Cobb parses the history and the future of the Black Lives Matter movement. He starts at the beginning, taking readers all the way back to when the organization’s founders—Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi—met and birthed the hashtag that sparked a revolution. Here is his telling of the origin story:

The phrase “Black lives matter” was born in July of 2013, in a Facebook post by Alicia Garza, called “a love letter to Black people.” The post was intended as an affirmation for a community distraught over George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, in Sanford, Florida. Garza, now thirty-five, is the special-projects director in the Oakland office of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which represents twenty thousand caregivers and housekeepers, and lobbies for labor legislation on their behalf. She is also an advocate for queer and transgender rights and for anti-police-brutality campaigns.

Garza has a prodigious social-media presence, and on the day that the Zimmerman verdict was handed down she posted, “The sad part is, there’s a section of America who is cheering and celebrating right now. And that makes me sick to my stomach. We gotta get it together y’all.” Later, she added, “Btw stop saying we are not surprised. That’s a damn shame in itself. I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter. And I will continue that. Stop giving up on Black life.” She ended with “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”

Garza’s friend Patrisse Cullors amended the last three words to create a hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter. Garza sometimes writes haiku—she admires the economy of the form—and in those four syllables she recognized a distillation not only of the anger that attended Zimmerman’s acquittal but also of the animating principle at the core of Black social movements dating back more than a century….

Garza had met Patrisse Cullors in 2005, on a dance floor in Providence, Rhode Island, where they were both attending an organizers’ conference. Cullors, a native of Los Angeles, had been organizing in the LGBTQ. community since she was a teen-ager—she came out as queer when she was sixteen and was forced to leave home—and she had earned a degree in religion and philosophy at UCLA. She is now a special-projects director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, in Oakland, which focuses on social justice in inner cities. Garza calls Cullors her “twin.” After Cullors created the Black Lives Matter hashtag, the two women began promoting it. Opal Tometi, a writer and an immigration-rights organizer in Brooklyn, whom Garza had met at a conference in 2012, offered to build a social-media platform, on Facebook and Twitter, where activists could connect with one another. The women also began thinking about how to turn the phrase into a movement.

While the genesis of the hashtag and the accompanying organization—which employs a decentralized grassroots model that encourages member chapters to move independently—are clear, Cobb writes that when it comes to the actual work of the movement (tackling initiatives, forcing action) things are not so simple.

DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta “Netta” Elzie are arguably the most well known people associated with the movement following their organizing work in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer. But neither of them actually belongs to one of the organization’s 30+ chapters. Cobb maintains that this distinction—what is the “organization” versus what is the “movement”—could impact the future works of people fighting to make Black lives matter in America.

Elzie, in fact, takes issue with people referring to Garza, Cullors and Tometi as founders. As she sees it, Ferguson is the cradle of the movement, and no chapter of the organization exists there or anywhere in the greater St. Louis area. That contentious distinction between the organization and the movement is part of the debate about what Black Lives Matter is and where it will go next….

Last month, it was announced that Garza would speak at Webster University, in St. Louis, which prompted an acrimonious social-media response from people in the area who are caught up in the debate over the movement’s origins. Elzie tweeted, “Thousands of ppl without platforms who have no clue who the ‘three’ are, and their work/sacrifice gets erased,” and said that the idea that Garza is a founder of the movement is a “lie.” Garza released a statement saying that she had cancelled the event “due to threats and online attacks on our organization and us as individuals from local activists with whom we have made an effort to have meaningful dialogue.” She continued, “We all lose when bullying and personal attacks become a substitute for genuine conversation and principled disagreement.”

He also places the organization within historical context, discussing how it contrasts with the Civil Rights movement, which placed a premium on famous leaders.

Garza, Cullors and Tometi advocate a horizontal ethic of organizing, which favors democratic inclusion at the grassroots level. Black Lives Matter emerged as a modern extension of Ella Baker’s thinking—a preference for ten thousand candles rather than a single spotlight….

Cullors says, “The consequence of focussing on a leader is that you develop a necessity for that leader to be the one who’s the spokesperson and the organizer, who tells the masses where to go, rather than the masses understanding that we can catalyze a movement in our own community.” Or, as Garza put it, “The model of the black preacher leading people to the promised land isn’t working right now.” Jesse Jackson—a former aide to King and a two-time Presidential candidate, who won seven primaries and four caucuses in 1988—was booed when he tried to address young protesters in Ferguson, who saw him as an interloper. That response was seen as indicative of a generational divide. But the divide was as much philosophical as it was generational, and one that was visible half a century earlier.

Click here to read Cobb’s full article and learn where he thinks Black Lives Matter is headed.