“…We demand a fair trial by law for those accused of crime, and punished by law after honest conviction”—Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Black Lives Matter. Black women have always been at the forefront of the fight for equal rights and protection for black people in America so it comes as no surprise that the originators of the #blacklivesmatter movement are black women. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullers, and Opal Tometi created Black Lives Matter in response to the GeorgeZimmerman “not guilty” verdict in the trial for the February 26, 2012 murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. However, it was not until the August 9, 2014 murder of 18-year-old Michael Brown that black people collectively decided that his death was the absolute tipping point. The #blacklivesmatter social media movement erupted and mass protests and marches were organized in Ferguson, Missouri (where Brown was murdered) and around the world. This movement, dedicated to confronting and eradicating all forms of injustice committed against black people, quickly gained momentum. #blacklivesmatter banners, rallies and protestors were everywhere from the streets of New York to the St. Louis Symphony Hall.
Black women organized and led these individual rallies all across America. Garza, Cullers, Tometi, and all of the other black women organizing #blacklivesmatter protests are connected to a long history of black women standing up and speaking out for the rights of black people. This legacy has a rich history. Consider: Harriet Tubman who courageously led enslaved black people out of slavery via the Underground Railroad; Sojourner Truth, former slave turned abolitionist who in 1851 delivered a transformational speech entitled “Ain’t I a Woman” at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio; and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, journalist and civil-rights activist who in 1895 compiled a report on the lynching of black people in America in The Red Record.
The connection between the #blacklivesmatter movement and Ida Wells-Barnett’s The Red Record is striking to me. They both prioritize(d) black suffering and demand(ed) equal treatment for black people under the law. In The Red Record Wells-Barnett states, “It becomes a painful duty of the Negro to reproduce a record which shows that a large portion of the American people avow anarchy, condone murder and defy the contempt of civilization.” Similarly, on the #blacklivesmatter website, Alicia Garza claims, “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” What becomes clear from the two descriptions is the ongoing crises that black people face in America (in 1895 and 2015). The crisis in each case is the state sanctioned violence against black bodies via lynching and/or police shooting. The perpetrators of this type of violence do not differentiate between black bodies so black men, women, and children are all subject to rape, beatings, and murder.
Under this type of racial order, black people are suspected and/or accused of a crime and then summarily executed. In 1895, white lynch mobs murdered black people before they ever saw the inside of a courtroom. Wells-Barnett establishes that the primary cause of these lynchings was the accusation of rape—the rape of a white woman by a black man. In 2015, police officers, security guards, neighborhood watchmen, and seemingly anyone who chooses to police black bodies can execute black men, women, and children with impunity. #blacklivesmatter establishes that one of the prevailing causes of these murders (besides breathing while black) is the presence of a weapon—a weapon that typically does not exist/cannot be found. In both cases, black people are subject to seizure and execution, with the presumption of overwhelming guilt and uncontrollable, inherent, violent tendencies. For example, the officer who killed Mike Brown describes him as “Hulk” and claims “it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him”.
Wells-Barnett and #blacklivesmatter argue that black people bear the burden of proving their innocence and humanity whenever they are confronted by an “authority.” But as their records/stories show, the proof was not enough to save their lives in 1895 and it is not enough to save their lives in 2015.
In December 2014, the NAACP Legal Fund released a list of all the unarmed black people killed by police from 1999-2014. This list serves much the same purpose as Wells-Barnett’s methodic chronicling of lynchings that occurred in 1894. Like the NAACP, Wells-Barnett gives the names and dates of the black victims; however, she also includes stories and first person testimonies. In doing so, Wells-Barnett not only provides human subjectivity to these brutalized black bodies, she also exposes the culture that dehumanizes them in the first place. Wells-Barnett called the names of the dead. The NAACP calls the names of the dead. #blacklivesmatter calls the names of the dead. We call the names of the dead to bring the gone-too-soon lives of our brothers and sisters to America’s collective consciousness.
And we will continue to call their names…
References and Suggested Reading:
Wells-Barnett, Ida B. The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States (1895). The Echo Library 2005.