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Black Lives Matter Meets the Moment

Seven years after its founding, Black Lives Matter has awakened an anti-racist movement that now spans the globe

After a neighborhood watch captain killed unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, I spent hours watching the media coverage. I turned to social media, posting, retweeting and sharing my outrage at this senseless act that prematurely took a young man’s life.

Like many others, I changed my profile picture to a selfie in a hoodie, like the one Trayvon was wearing when he was killed – a sign of solidarity with those who knew his murder should never have happened.

When Trayvon’s killer was acquitted in July 2013, Alicia GarzaPatrisse Khan-Cullors and Opal Tometi expressed my outrage – and that of many others – with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” online. This month marks the seventh anniversary of a movement born from a social media expression against police brutality and has grown to become a clarion call for racial justice around the world.

By the time Trayvon was killed, I had been working in social justice for 17 years. And even after working with two national organizations that had made significant gains in the fight for civil rights, it seemed as if we were not making any progress at all. When I committed to doing this work, I committed with fervor, vowing that my child and grandchildren would experience a vastly different America.

But I began to wonder if I would see any change in my lifetime.

As the Black Lives Matter movement has progressed over the last seven years, it has given me that fire I needed to carry on – the fire I believe John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hamer spoke of. It has kept me in the fight. And as director of the Civil Rights Memorial Center, which honors martyrs of the movement and is operated by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, I continue to heed the call from Black Lives Matter to push for an end to police brutality.

As we mark the movement’s anniversary, I’m profoundly grateful that its founders created a much-needed, inclusive, safe space for Black people to connect, explore and address issues of injustice in our communities. It’s a movement that emphasizes the importance of local organizing over centralized, national leadership – a model that has encouraged us to be at the center of discussions about how to tackle systemic racism.

A movement rises

In the beginning, however, it wasn’t clear that Black Lives Matter would become such a force for social change. After Trayvon was killed, many feared his death would slowly fade from memory and that his name would be added to a quickly forgotten list of unarmed Black men who have died at the hands of police – or vigilantes acting like police.

But that didn’t happen.

In July 2014, a year after its creation, the Black Lives Matter movement took to the streets following the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. At the same time, social media profiles echoed the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” the words Garner used to plead for his life while being choked to death by a police officer on Staten Island. Protests in Garner’s name spread across New York City and the rest of the country.

A month later, Brown was killed by a police officer on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, where his body lay in the hot sun for over four hours. Protesters convened in Ferguson, and in just a few days, the world’s gaze was fixed on the city.

I, like countless others, was glued to the media coverage. This was different and we all knew it.

There was no turning back.

Images showed young people standing with courage and conviction. They seemed to be saying, “We are not asking to be valued. We are telling you that we are valuable and our lives matter.”

Ferguson was their own “Bloody Sunday.”

Much like Congressman John Lewis and Dr. C.T. Vivian, who stood firmly on their convictions in the face of Jim Crow, I saw that same determination in the Black Lives Matter protesters.

It’s a determination that hasn’t waned.

The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag would be applied to Sandra Bland in 2015 and Philando Castile a year later. Ironically, Bland, Castile and Garner all died in July – the month the movement was founded.

And as we’ve recently seen, whenever a Black person’s life is unjustly taken, #BlackLivesMatter immediately reappears online, urging action in our communities. Those three incredibly powerful words have commemorated the lives of George FloydBreonna TaylorTony McDadeSean ReedYassin MohamedAhmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and countless others. And communities have responded with mass demonstrations and sit-ins in the wake of such deaths.

What’s more, public conversations have begun to shift in favor of Black Lives Matter. We’ve seen states and cities remove Confederate monuments from public spaces – a long overdue recognition that these monuments do not embody history but symbolize and honor white supremacy. Similar conversations are happening abroad as people begin to question what the symbols in their own communities represent.

Black Lives Matter is bringing change.

Onward

But the movement is far from over.

And like any movement, there will be more tough times ahead. Being anti-racist is a long, grueling road. When I learned of the police murder of George Floyd, I honestly couldn’t do anything but just sit with my anger for a day – something I don’t think I’ve done in over 20 years of fighting for social justice. I did not post on social media right away. I just wanted to grieve for Floyd, his little girl and the rest of the community.

Part of the Black Lives Matter movement is about self-care and self-empowerment, and this includes expressing anger over unjust killings. It’s OK to experience every range of emotion. When people ask why there is so much anger, I tell them that anger is justified. It is vitally important that we move through it and work together to end systemic racism.

As John Lewis once said, “Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”

For seven years, Black Lives Matter has ensured that there is continuous action for a more fair, more just society. We must prevail and in order to do so, there is no way to move, but forward.

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images