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.