BY MARC H. MORIAL, PRESIDENT AND CEO, NATIONAL URBAN LEAGUE
I WAS ALREADY MAYOR of New Orleans, and Michael Cottman was a seasoned journalist with a Pulitzer Prize under his belt when first we met. But we share a deeper connection as children of the Civil Rights Movement. Born into the waning days of Jim Crow, we are a generation whose childhood was shaped by desegregation and Black Power, who came of age during the cultural backlash of the Reagan Revolution.
In the years since I moved on from mayor to president and CEO of the National Urban League, we have spoken frequently about the issues and developments impacting Black Americans, from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, through Barack Obama’s historic election as the nation’s first Black president, to the alarming rise of white supremacist ideology under Donald Trump.
There are perhaps no journalists working in the United States better positioned to put the Black Lives Matter movement and the cultural uprising of 2020 into historical perspective than Michael Cottman, Curtis Bunn, Patrice Gaines, Nick Charles, and Keith Harriston. Through moving personal accounts and a detailed grasp of history, they trace the spiritual legacy of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells to the fearless women who created #BlackLivesMatter and laid the groundwork for “a moment when the world is cracked wide open.”
I call myself a “child of the movement” in the most literal of senses: My mother, Sybil Haydel, was home in New Orleans on summer break from her graduate studies at Boston University when she attended a Great Books discussion of W. E. B. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk. After the book discussion, she became immersed in a conversation with a self-confident young civil rights attorney about Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, which had been decided just weeks earlier. She returned to Massachusetts that August wearing Ernest “Dutch” Morial’s fraternity pin.
The struggle for civil rights and social justice and its violent backlash have been an ever-present force in my life from my earliest childhood. I remember my father honking his car horn each evening when he arrived home from work and waiting for my mother to flash the car port lights on and off; this was the system they devised in response to the constant death threats he received as president of the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP. Racially motivated police brutality was among the greatest challenges both during my father’s term as Mayor of New Orleans and during mine. When I took office, New Orleans led the nation in the number of civil rights complaints against its police department.
But 2020 was a year like no other. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to tighten its grip on the nation, the National Urban League identified it as a crisis of racial equity. The limited access to quality health care, lower rates of health insurance, higher rates of chronic illness and implicit bias in health care delivery that saturated Black America before 2020 were the accelerant that spread the flame of COVID-19 racing through our communities. African Americans and Latinos were more than three times as likely to contract the coronavirus as whites, and African Americans nearly twice as likely to die.
Black workers overrepresented among low-income jobs could not be done from home as the economy cratered, Black unemployment soared by nearly 250% from February to April.
As the nation’s economic first responders, the National Urban League and our network of ninety affiliates around the nation faced our greatest challenge in a generation. As our affiliates leaped into service as COVID testing facilities, distribution points for food and medical supplies, and emergency employment clearinghouses, we waged a fierce and unrelenting advocacy campaign to target economic relief to communities’ Black-owned businesses.
Into this simmering cauldron of grief and economic desperation—already overheated by the staggering rollback of civil rights protections under the Trump administration—fell the brutal killing of George Floyd.
For Black Americans battling a disease that left its victims gasping for air, George Floyd’s final words, “I can’t breathe,” became a heartbreaking emblem of systemic racism. The aloof expression on Officer Derek Chauvin’s face, as he calmly crushed the life from Floyd’s body, became an emblem of white indifference to Black suffering.
It was a time to respond—not with despair, but with determination. The National Urban League joined with other civil rights organizations to demand the reforms that became the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. As a community, we demanded justice for the victims of racially motivated police violence across the country.
This book, like 2020 itself, ends with what Washington Post journalist Dorothy Butler Gilliam calls “an explosion of Black hope.” But our hope must be tempered with caution. We cannot emerge from this year of crisis only to fall back into the same patterns and practices that created the crisis in the first place. We need to see the span of history encapsulated in these pages and let it inform the future. We must be vigilant, we must be forceful, and we must continue to “Say Their Names” if we are to sustain the momentum of this movement.
WHY BLACK LIVES MATTER MATTERS
BY CURTIS BUNN
OF ALL THE ACTION Black Lives Matter has taken, all the change it has effected, all the controversy it has engendered, its most significant feat is this: It has awakened anew the power that resides within Black people.
From every part of the United States, African Americans charged to the forefront of the BLM movement. They brought all of their emotions—their anger, their fears, their boundless optimism, and, mostly, their courage. BLM was born in the shadows of the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, who had gunned down seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. It rose to a world-shaking phenomenon in 2020, after George Floyd was murdered under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
That heinous act illuminated why Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi—three Black women—created what they describe as a “Black-centered political will and movement.”
It was Garza, who is from Los Angeles and lives in Oakland, who coined the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Trayvon Martin was shot and killed on February 26, 2012, when confronted by an armed Zimmerman as Trayvon returned to his father’s fiancée’s home from a convenience store in Sanford, Florida. Garza posted the phrase as an emotional proclamation on Facebook in response to the anguish she felt, a suffering magnified by knowing there were so many others like it.
It became the most used phrase in the lexicon around the world. It was a rallying cry, a call for justice, an exaltation of human worth, an expression of desperation.
Garza’s mother is Black, her father Jewish. She calls herself a “queer social justice activist” and is married to Malachi Garza, a transgender male activist.
Khan-Cullors, whose mother is a Jehovah’s Witness, is gay and an activist from Los Angeles. She served in the trenches of criminal justice reform and led Reform LA Jails’ “Yes on R” campaign, a ballot initiative that passed by a 73 percent landslide victory in March 2020. Her Twitter use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter sparked an explosion on that social media platform.
Tometi is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. She lives in New York, has been involved in social movements for two decades, and is the executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Tometi is married with children. She built the BLM website.
These are the three women who have changed the world.
These are the three women who, in changing the world, thrust its vicious underbelly into everyone’s consciousness.
They are not the first to do so, however. They are, indeed, following a legacy of female leaders who fought tirelessly for justice since the 1800s. There was Ida B. Wells, a former slave who became a journalist and activist who spearheaded an anti-lynching campaign in the United States in the 1890s.
Long before Rosa Parks and others refused to give up their seats and move to the back of the bus, Wells, in May 1884, would not relinquish the first-class train seat she purchased to retreat to the “Colored Car,” as ordered. She was forcibly removed from the train, but not before she bit one of the men on the hand. Wells won a $500 settlement in a circuit court case. But the Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned the decision. That’s when she began writing about social injustices and became an activist.
“One had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap,” she said.
There was Charlotta Bass, the first Black woman to run for vice president, in 1952. She was on the ballot with presidential candidate Vincent Hallinan of the left-wing Progressive Party. A former journalist, Bass was the co-president of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in the 1920s and created the Home Protective Association, which fought against laws that prevented Black people from becoming homeowners. So aggressive were her stances that the FBI put her under surveillance.
After becoming the vice presidential nominee, Bass said: “For the first time in the history of this nation a political party has chosen a Negro woman for the second highest office in the land. It is a great honor to be chosen as a pioneer. And a great responsibility. But I am strengthened by thousands on thousands of pioneers who stand by my side and look over my shoulder—those who have led the fight for freedom, those who led the fight for women’s rights, those who have been in the front line fighting for peace and justice and equality everywhere. How they must rejoice in this great understanding which here joins the cause of peace and freedom.”
There was Shirley Chisholm, who went from voicing her strong views on racial and gender discrimination as a member of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters to becoming the first Black woman elected to Congress. The former New York state legislator, a onetime nursery school owner, served seven terms in the House of Representatives and introduced more than fifty pieces of legislation.
There was Patricia Harris, who worked with many presidents of the United States and became the first African American woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, under Jimmy Carter in 1977. She also was named co-chair of the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and was made an American envoy by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.
“I feel deeply proud and grateful to knock down this barrier, but also a little sad about being the ‘first Negro woman’ because it implies we were not considered before,” Harris said.
There were countless other Black women who felt, like the Black Lives Matters founders, the call to address systemic racism, enduring police killings of mostly Black people and social injustice—and acted.
With BLM, its ultimate strength rests with its revealing force and its galvanizing influence. Things about America, shameful things that had been pushed aside but mostly ignored, were illuminated as if by the sun. And leaders have emerged, many young, eager, and courageous, who will extend this fight into the future.
And they did so without the Black church as the anchor of its organization, as it was during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. That religious entity took its concerns from the pulpit to the pavement, led by the indomitable Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a band of faith leaders who were relentless and courageous.
The marches and boycotts inspired change and iconic milestones in history, including the Supreme Court declaring bus segregation unconstitutional in 1956 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among many other society-changing policies.
Dr. King and the army of civil rights troops showed the way. Black Lives Matter adopted those principles and kicked it up several notches, eschewing the church and relying instead on a not-taking-no-for-an-answer, unrelenting, in-your-face methodology, led by young people, that did not slow down, even during the coronavirus pandemic that disproportionately devastated Black communities across America.
So how did we get here? Structural and systemic racism have been at the heart of Black people’s suffering since the first ships with enslaved Africans arrived on the shore of Jamestown, Virginia, on August 20, 1619. The killings of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd, Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and John Crawford . . . and on and on, are a part of the white supremacy ideology that has made the United States go. The three founders of Black Lives Matter had had enough and moved to reenergize the civil rights movement.
BLM, as it would turn out, is the biggest movement in American history, according to analysts, with up to 26 million people participating in the nationwide demonstrations. On the world stage, there were protests in sixty countries and all continents except Antarctica. Its global reach was the result of savvy leveraging of social media platforms, where messaging and rally locations were shared widely.
Much more than that, it was its way of enhancing the citizenry’s understanding of structural racism, using racist incidents that were different in nature but connected in spirit. And there were many.
Its mantra: “There’s a Mike Brown in every town.”
And yet, the idiom Black Lives Matter was an “umbrella” term, Tometi said. As Black people are not monolithic, the term captured all lifestyles and heritages of Black people. Indeed, it was the organization’s most viable attribute: It stood for everyone, endowing every Black person’s vested interest.
At the same time, the founders were intentional in not being the focal point of the cause. There were at least forty chapters in American cities, the idea being that vast leadership will allow the movement to sustain itself through numbers.
The co-founders travel with security. Their lives have been threatened by white supremacists. They are followed by law enforcement. The FBI raided the home of an extremist and found two of the founders’ names on a watch list. The risk of death is real.
In an interview with the Guardian, Tometi explained why having a single confirmed leader out front would be a disadvantage. “I see what has happened in the past, where there has been one or two figureheads and those people have been assassinated,” she said. “It really destabilized their organizations. So, what we’re trying to do now is be stronger than we ever were before. Leaders are everywhere. Yes, one might go, but there will be ten more that pop up.”
Translation: They were prepared to die for the cause.