Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi co-founded the Black Lives Matter Movement when George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin. They created the hashtag, which spread like wildfire.
“This isn’t the beginning of a movement, this is the continuation of a struggle that’s been happening for at least 400 years,” said Garza, 34, who works as the special projects director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Cullors, 31, director of Dignity and Power Now, an organization focused on helping incarcerated people and their families “went off” when she found out about Zimmerman’s acquittal.
“I was hopeful — and probably naïve — that Zimmerman was going to be convicted and when he wasn’t convicted I sort of went ballistic,” said Cullors. “And this generation goes ballistic in public, on social media.”
Garza wrote the words Black Lives Matter on social media, and Cullors followed with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Later that day, they decided to start a movement, on the streets and online.
Tometi, 30, executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, an organization focused on Black and Latino immigrant rights, joined them. She built the movement’s social media presence, helping to engage and connect people.
Tometi was at a screening of Fruitvale Station in 2013, a film based on the events leading up to the shooting of Oscar Grant, when she found out that Zimmerman was acquitted.
Tometi said her community was hoping for a guilty verdict. “At the same time knowing that a guilty verdict wasn’t going to mean justice. It wasn’t going to bring Trayvon Martin back.”
Garza said she, Patrisse, and Opal wanted to connect Black people because their lives depended on it. They wanted to reach Black people in a society that doesn’t try to do that.
“We each deeply believe that Twitter is not going to save us,” Garza said. “Twitter can be a vehicle that connects us and helps bring us together to strategize around how we’re going to build the kind of power that we need to transform the world that we live in.”
Mark-Anthony Johnson, 31, director of health and wellness at Dignity and Power Now, worked closely with Cullors for more than 15 years and has known Garza for about a decade. Johnson has organized for the movement since it started as “Justice for Trayvon Martin, Los Angeles.” He became the California coordinator for the freedom ride to Ferguson after Darren Wilson shot unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown.
According to Johnson, protesters from 16 different states and Canada witnessed how Garza, Cullors, and Tometi brought 600 different people together in Ferguson.
“I think they’re central,” he said. “The character of the folks that we were bringing out I think was really important in terms of having a group that was significantly women, significantly queer, having Black transgender people in the space. And that’s possible because of them and the national team that they built up around them.”
Cullors said that organizing the movement hasn’t been easy, as women in leadership are still looked at skeptically. Garza said women aren’t often seen as leaders and dealing with patriarchy is a challenge.
“I believe if Black Lives Matter was created by three Black men, Opal, Alicia and myself wouldn’t have to fight so hard to remind people we are the co-founders,” Cullors said.
Tia Oso, 33, national coordinator of the Black Immigration Network and organizer of BAJI Arizona, copyedited content for Tometi and Black Lives Matter’s social platforms in 2013. She said prominent figures and media would talk about the movement, but not the people behind it. She and others used social media to remind people of Garza, Cullors, and Tometi’s work.
“Twitter and other social media outlets are where we purposefully lifted the three of them up,” said Oso. “It was like, ‘Hey, if you’re going to have a conversation about Black Lives Matter and what it means as an idea, as a rally and cry… at least acknowledge who the creators are.’”
Tometi said despite such road blocks, leaders like herself, Cullors and Garza are needed.
“Our people and our movement largely are ready for the type of leadership that we embody, and we are who we are as the two of them being queer Black women unapologetically, and me being Nigerian,” said Tometi.
According to Cullors, Black women have always led Black movements. Ella Baker, Diane Nash, and Fannie Lou Hamer are Black women leaders who were critical in developing movements, and their names aren’t heard often. Cullors said women are on the front lines, strategizing, organizing and developing policy in Ferguson and around the country. “We’re leading the movement; we’re the architects of the movement.”
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