News and analysis
January 05, 2016

3 Women and a Hashtag: Birth of a Movement

Ben Baker for Politico Magazine/Redux
#BlackLivesMatter co-founders Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi.

Patrisse Cullors, 32
Truth and Reinvestment Campaign Director, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
Los Angeles

Alicia Garza, 34
Special Projects Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance
Oakland, Calif.

Opal Tometi, 31
Executive Director, Black Alliance for Just Immigration
New York

Black Lives Matter. Is it a hashtag? A movement? An organization? A narrative shift?

I am betting that when Alicia Garza shared the phrase and the hashtag was born in the aftermath of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, she and her comrades Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi probably didn’t imagine the impact of three simple but profound words.

Though the phrase seems self-evident to many, it was born out of a need to heal and inspire the black community at a moment when many were feeling outrage, fear, disappointment, and despair. During a time of mixed emotion, the three words would be a game-changer.

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From a hashtag, Black Lives Matter became an organizing mantra, principle, and vision for a new movement. It represents the resurgence of a people long oppressed by the vestiges of slavery and its legacy of institutionalized racism.

More than a moniker, Black Lives Matter asserts that black lives do have value, in the face of racist policies, practices, and structures — profiling, mass incarceration, police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline, income inequality — that suggest otherwise.

It has become a unifying call to action for an end to violence, structural and physical, against black people. More than that, it is shifting the discourse on race in profound ways. Black Lives Matter has helped reframe structural racism by underscoring the humanity of black people. In some regards it is picking up where the 1960s rallying cry "I am a man" left off.

It’s not surprising Black Lives Matter grew in prominence and meaning when you know who’s behind it. The three women who made Black Lives Matter more than a hashtag and seeded chapters throughout the country are not novices in movement building.

Alicia Garza of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Patrisse Cullors of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and Opal Tometi of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration understand that moments create opportunities to build revolutionary movements. They know that harnessing the energy in the streets requires more than a hashtag and rally.

These remarkable women have also lifted the voices of female and LGBTQ African Americans, as leaders and as people affected by violence. Though black women have long played important roles in the civil-rights movement, our contributions are often marginalized. The erasure of black-women’s stories and contributions is not a phenomenon restricted to earlier eras; it persists even today.

That Cullors, Tometi, and Garza launched Black Lives Matter and remain visibly connected to it testifies to some degree of change, but it is still an incredible feat in movement circles that remain dominated by male leaders. They have built an inclusive movement by affirming the visibility of black queer and transgender folks.

Following heartbreaking headlines of police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and others, Black Lives Matter has raised the consciousness of a nation. By refusing to quietly accept injustice, by insisting on vocalizing the pain African Americans feel in response to being profiled, harassed, and killed, Black Lives Matter ignited an impressive wave of activism, particularly among teenagers, college students, and other young people.

After the protests began in Ferguson over the killing of Michael Brown, I tweeted, "I hope that we will never be the same." We won’t be. The work of Alicia, Patrisse, Opal, and all the young people asserting that black lives matter has moved us closer to the country we aspire to be. For that, we should all be thankful.

Ms. Browne Dianis is co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil-rights organization based in Washington, D.C.