What Black Lives Matter Means: The History of the Movement
What is the true meaning of Black Lives Matter? Many are still muddling the powerful message of the global movement.
What Black Lives Matter is and what Black Lives Matter isn’t has been feverishly debated since its inception in 2013. What began as a hashtag on social media posts and anti-racism quotes has snowballed into a global rallying cry in the battle to combat systemic and institutional racism, which became impossible to ignore after yet another series of high-profile police brutality incidents. BLM is now proudly proclaimed and derided. Scrawled on posters. Graffitied—and subsequently defaced—on concrete. It has divided loved ones and united loved ones. Still, people are searching for the answer. Ask Google, “What is the BLM meaning?” and you’ll get 37 million results to sift through.
“Black Lives Matter is not only the movement for Black lives now, and it’s not only the phrase that people can attach to, but it’s an affirmation that I think goes beyond the organizers of the movement for Black lives,” says Camara Jones, MD, PhD, an anti-racism activist and adjunct professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University who is not affiliated with BLM.
If you’re here, you’re likely looking for answers, whether you’re a member of the Black community, you’re looking to be an ally in the movement toward equality, or you’re wondering what it truly means to be anti-racist. Once you’ve learned the meaning of BLM, you might also consider making a Black Lives Matter donation or supporting these Black-owned businesses.
What does Black Lives Matter mean?
The BLM message was born in response to police and civilian brutality against Black lives. Simply put, Black lives matter—period. Just as much as every other race, but not more so than any other race. Still, many non-Black people miss the BLM meaning, says Dr. Jones, because their privilege blinds them. She likens the phenomenon of White privilege to patrons eating in a restaurant, in an allegory she calls Dual Reality: A Restaurant Saga. “There are many people who’ve been born inside a restaurant, sitting at the table of opportunity, eating, and they see a sign that says ‘Open,’ and do not recognize that that sign is a two-sided, open-closed sign,” she explains, “because it’s difficult for any of us to recognize the system of inequity that privileges us.” It’s a vicious cycle perpetuated by a lack of understanding. Those already eating look outside, seeing hungry, would-be patrons and wondering why they don’t simply come inside. Those outside wonder why their side of the sign says “Closed” when there is plenty of room inside the restaurant.
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How did Black Lives Matter begin?
The phrase Black Lives Matter was born out of a Facebook post from Alicia Garza after the July 13, 2013, acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman shot and killed an unarmed Martin, who was returning from a store to a relative’s Sanford, Florida, home after buying Arizona iced tea and a pack of Skittles. “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter,” wrote Garza, to which her pal Patrisse Cullors replied, “#blacklivesmatter.” Garza, Cullors, and pal Opal Tometi teamed up to form the BLM movement. Today, BLM has ballooned to an international movement with 40 chapters.
Why does saying “All Lives Matter” miss the point?
“Because it is not the truth in this country,” says Dr. Jones. “It is not the reality of this country that all lives matter.” The police-involved murders of Black men and women are proof. So, too, are the inequities that can be found at every level of American society. “All we have to do is look at how resources are distributed by so-called race [and] look at the relative safety by so-called race. We can look at who gets the benefit of the doubt and who would be immediately perceived as a threat. We can look at those in whom we invest and in which communities we actively divest. And it is clear that Black lives and Indigenous lives, and Hispanic lives, Latinx lives, are devalued in this country and dehumanized.” The harsh truth was laid bare in George Floyd’s final moments, and that’s why the BLM’s meaning and newfound stature is so important. “What did Derek Chauvin think he was doing?” she asks. “People said that the way he looked was the way that hunters squeeze the life out of a deer.”
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How did the movement gain so much power?
The BLM movement raised more than $90 million in 2020 and saw up to 26 million supporters join in protests, making it the largest movement in U.S. history. Dr. Jones says BLM and the BLM meaning became a formidable force in part due to technology. “Because of cell phone video and police body cams, people who were ‘born inside the restaurant’ [of the Dual Reality allegory] could see the reality on the other side. For centuries, we’ve had these stories,” adds Dr. Jones, “but now, all of a sudden, the images and the truth of it is barging into those people who have had the privilege of not having to know.”
How is Black Lives Matter unique?
What’s not unique, or anywhere near new, says Dr. Jones, is the struggle of Black people against racism. “It is a continuation of struggles of people of African ancestry for centuries, for four centuries, to affirm our humanity.” But what is unique is the new generation’s fight for justice. “It is the young people, many of whom may not have studied even the history of the civil rights movement, or may think of that as something ‘old.’ Some may not have been fully aware of the history, and many of them may have thought that they were the first ones to engage in these struggles around the rights to our humanity, to the recognition of our humanity. So, the thing that makes them different is that it’s this generation’s iteration.” There has also been some good news in the midst of this ongoing struggle: A number of positive changes have been made since the anti-racism protests began.
How can I support Black Lives Matter?
You can donate, volunteer, and sign up for events and information via BLM’s official website. But there are also other ways to fight alongside the movement. Dr. Jones suggests that Black people and non-Black people alike need to bear witness to the inequities facing Black and Brown people—and, if necessary, hit the “record” button, much like how bystanders bravely recorded Chauvin as he and three other cops pinned Floyd to the ground. She says she recently took her own advice when she stuck around after seeing a Black father and child involved in a multi-vehicle crash. No matter how ugly or fraught it may get, she says, “stay and bear witness.”
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- Camara Jones, MD, PhD, an anti-racism activist and adjunct professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University