Most people have some rough idea of the history of “Black Lives Matter.” I use it to refer to the network of organizations now identified by the name Black Lives Matter. These organizations exist as part of a broader movement network known as the Movement for Black Lives. The founders of Black Lives Matter (BLM), Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, state that they came up with the slogan that would become the name of the movement just after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in February of 2012. In the months after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, many local groups calling themselves “Black Lives Matter” arose across the country in a way reminiscent of the spread of “Occupy” movements across the United States in 2011-12. Within a year of Michael Brown’s death, Black Lives Matter began consolidating into a formal network. However, I do not wish to focus on the history of that organization per se. Instead, I wish to take a broader approach to Black activism in the 21st century by focusing more directly on Black activism and on the distinction between Black activism and Black social movement organizations. I refer to the wave of protests that swept the country from 2014 to 2016 as the Black Lives movement. This wave included protests by groups and individuals not affiliated with the Black Lives Matter organization or the broader Movement for Black Lives network. My point is that looking at the Black Lives movement through a localized approach reveals an abundance of various organizations that got involved, ranging from student groups at colleges and universities to established Black organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League. Focusing on protest behavior alone or even nationally prominent organizations like the Black Lives Matter network or BYP 100 overlooks local social movement fields and contexts that shape how Black activists could, and often did, get involved with the Black Lives movement.
Lessons from the Fall of 2014
It is useful to review the early days of the Black Lives movement – before the Movement for Black Lives existed under that title. Early news coverage of the protests in response to the deaths of Eric Garner on July 17, 2014 and Michael Brown on August 9, 2014 bears no reference to Black Lives Matter or even local social movement organizations (called SMOs for short by scholars). Early protests for Eric Garner were staged by local New York City politicians, Eric Garner’s family, and community members. The protest in the cited article took place on 22 July 2014. A week later, in her first public statement since her husband’s funeral, Esaw Garner spoke at a rally hosted by Al Sharpton’s National Action Network in Harlem.
The protests in Ferguson, Missouri that triggered the now-infamous police repression were largely the work of the residents of the Canfield Apartment complex where Michael Brown died. While the NAACP did release a statement about Michael Brown within 48 hours of his death, the early days of August stand in stark contrast to the weekend of protest that would occur in St. Louis two months later under the label of #FergusonOctober. The weekend of October 10-12, 2014 featured a call to activists from around the country to descend onto St. Louis for 3 days of rallies, speeches, and civil disobedience on behalf of the events in early August. The weekend, organized by a group called Ferguson Action, featured hundreds, if not thousands, of local and national activists. A recent statement by a group called Black Lives Matter Cincinnati criticizes the Black Lives Matter network. They write,
BLMC has never been a chapter of that organization or a partisan of its politics because, even at the onset of us establishing our name as BLMC, we recognized that our idea of the type of movement necessary to win Black liberation was at odds with that national body and it’s directives. We originally took the name, inspired by a rising movement for Black liberation, manifested through spontaneous actions breaking out after the killings of Mike Brown, Jr., and Trayvon Martin. People chanted “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” and “Black Lives Matter.” This was before any serious national structure and unified platform existed. We felt — in that context — we had the right to try to champion the name and give it the meaning worthy of the people it claims to support and defend. Internally, we have agreed for some time that it is our duty to represent a different pole of attraction to the strategy and perspectives of BLM in Cincinnati and nationally. We debated, however, how and when to formally break with the name. Because WE (BLMC) have done real work under that name and did not want to surrender it to those we feel cannot and have no interest in building a revolutionary movement for Black liberation. But we can no longer use or identify with the name Black Lives Matter — a rally cry that still has meaning, even if perverted by those pushing it as a brand. The depth and scope of betrayal of struggles against police brutality and the families fighting for their loved ones is too great. The continuous shift towards electoral and liberal Democratic Party politics and away from revolutionary ideas is too great. The consequences for Black, brown, and poor people are too great. The possibilities to build a truly independent movement on a national scale for Black liberation are too ripe. BLM did not create or build this new grassroots movement against police brutality and racism; they capitalized off a nameless groundswell of resistance sweeping the nation, branded it as their own, and profited from the deaths of Black men and women around the country without seriously engaging, as a national formation, in getting justice for fighting families [my emphasis]. All the while raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars from high-end speaking engagements and donations from foundations that support the Black struggle (or want to co-opt it).
I should state clearly that I do not agree with all of this statement nor do I know much about the specific history of the local group formerly known as Black Lives Matter Cincinnati. Instead, their stance largely reflects and illustrates my point about the Black Lives movement – that the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were a moment that spurred thousands of people, and in particular Black people, into action. But I disagree when Black Lives Matter Cincinnati states that BLM “…capitalized off a nameless groundswell of resistance sweeping the nation…” The groundswell of resistance is not nameless, but instead is full of thousands of names that have been overlooked until 2014, and that we risk overlooking going forward. This is why it is important to study Black activism in the 21st Century.
However, I do agree with the statement that July and August 2014, and perhaps looking back even further to mobilizing around the killing of Trayvon Martin and the George Zimmerman trial, are full of instances of Black people (as well as non-Blacks) mobilizing at the local and national level. It is difficult but necessary to make an analytic distinction between Black activism writ large and Black organizations. Such an analytic distinction isn’t new, as Aldon Morris’ book The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement, among numerous scholarly and journalistic investigations, has shown that Black people’s activism goes far beyond the organizations that attract the bulk of scholarly and academic attention such as The Black Panther Party, SNCC, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, or the Congress on Racial Equality. However, the distinction does allow a site for theoretical and empirical investigation of the relationship between Black organizations as just one form of Black activism.
Local Examples: Hidden in Plain Sight
The immediate, local reactions to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, along with the statement from BLM Cincinnati, show that movement organizations have a very real impact on Black protest and activist behavior. Looking retrospectively, it is possible to witness participation in the Black Lives movement far beyond established, nationally prominent organizations. Black organizations across the country such as churches, fraternities and sororities, the Urban League, or the National Society of Black Engineers – just to name a few – responded to the rallying cry of the movement. Closer attention to Black social movement organizations shows tremendous complexity even within localities across the country, with implications for the very real mobilizing opportunities for Black people. In Pittsburgh, for example, 2014 and 2015 brought a few social movement organizations into the spotlight. One organization was the Alliance for Police Accountability, which was founded in 2010, that had been doing police reform work alongside law enforcement for the Black communities of Pittsburgh. Another organization that predated the Black Lives movement, the New Afrikan Independence Party, a Black social movement organization with roots in earlier 20th century Black separatist ideology, also organized protests for police reform. On the other hand, Pittsburgh also witnessed the formation of a new social movement organization named We Change Pittsburgh in the fall of 2014 that was multiracial in composition and fashioned itself a local branch of Black Lives Matter.
Another city, Baltimore – perhaps most notorious for the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 and resulting unrest – has a long history of Black activism that cannot be understated. The broader American audience had a glimpse into that history through Charles Barkley’s series “American Race” in which the mother of Tyrone West, a man who died in 2013 after being beaten for 15 minutes by Baltimore police, lambasts Barkley in a town hall meeting. While the episode may depict the town hall and her strong words for Barkley as a one-off issue, there had actually been organizing around West’s death and police brutality for years prior. Tyrone West’s sister, Tawanda Jones organized the protests, titled “West Wednesdays,” that focused on convicting the police officers who killed her brother. The broader American audience may also have seen a film titled “Baltimore Rising,” produced by Sonja Sohn and HBO Films, that chronicles the unrest around Freddie Gray’s death but also other local activist efforts beyond those of Tawanda Jones. The documentary showed members of one organization, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, whose focus is to provide Black liberation through analysis, criticism, and prescription of state and local legislation.
I provide these examples just to point to the richness and complexity of organizational and also institutional contexts of Black activism in 2014 and 2015. I should state clearly that the organizations and movements that I highlighted are Black led and are majority Black or all Black in membership.
Decoupling Black Activism and Black Social Movement Organizations
I highlight these organizations in Baltimore and Pittsburgh to stress the importance of returning to the long-neglected study of Black social movement organizations within Black activism as a larger category. I use the phrase “long-neglected” not to imply that scholars have not paid attention to these categories, or local Black organizing, for an extended period of time; I use the phrase to indicate that there is an extended period of time of Black organizing that has been overlooked in scholarship on social movements. Where did these organizations come from? Why did people start local Black organizations? Are these organizations abeyance forms of even older Black efforts? How did (potential) Black activists decide whether to found a new movement organization or join an established one in the Black Lives movement?
It may be methodologically easy for social movements scholars to generate lessons based on Black movement organizations that have already formed as such. However, I worry that in this moment it would recreate a bias toward nationally prominent organizations like Black Youth Project, the NAACP, or Black Lives Matter. Instead, the rhetorical questions that I have posed above point to a much more complicated relationship between Black activism and social movement organizations.
It is important not only to recover the histories of local Black activism and social movement organizations that have been overlooked, but also to use their histories to bring racial analysis into broader theories of social movement organizations, theories that have largely neglected rigorous inclusion of racial analysis. However, this requires moving beyond looking at Black activism and communities through broad, national-level analysis or a focus on demographic categories. What is necessary is a thorough commitment to grappling with the messiness of grassroots politics and understanding the very real, immediate, and subjective options that form Black communities’ options for engaging in activism. Though the Black Lives movement marks another tremendous historical moment that has cast a light into recent history of policing in Black communities, policing is only half of the story. Renewing a sociological and also historical commitment to the roots of the Black Lives movement, in all of its complexity, can be the basis for a new, rich wave of scholarship on Black social movements.
Black people have a capacity for Black mobilizing and protest behavior. As I write this, I am sure many academics are theorizing based on popular and journalistic treatments of the Black Lives movement protests. I am also sure that social movement scholars will apply the full gamut of research concepts in social movement studies – mechanisms, resources, strategy, and outcomes – to guide study of the Black Lives movement. My principal concern is that these questions will only be applied to a very small portion of Black activism. In writing this admittedly brief analysis of the early days of the Black Lives movement, I hope to point toward a rich history of Black activism and social movement organizations that is essential to painting a fuller picture of the Black Lives movement. Studying these organizations, like Ferguson Action but also Southerners on New Ground, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, or even revisiting Black activists who first organized in the Civil Rights or Black Power eras, reveals a much more complex history of race and activism that formed the conduits and channels of the biggest surge of Black activism since the 1960s.
 http://www.essence.com/2014/08/10/st-louis-fatal-police-shooting-unarmed-teen-michael-brown also see https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/ferguson-day-one-wrapup-officer-kills-ferguson-teen/article_04e3885b-4131-5e49-b784-33cd3acbe7f1.html
 For a conceptual treatment of local Black organizing, see Aldon Morris’s explanation of the role of Black “local movement centers” in chapters 3 and 11 of The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement.
George Weddington is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. His research interests are race, social movements, and Black Studies.