On July 13, 2013, a jury in Sanford, Florida acquitted George Zimmerman of murder charges after he’d shot a Black teenager named Trayvon Martin as he walked home from a convenience store. His killing and subsequent verdict sparked protests and outrage across the United States.
When the verdict came out, Alicia Garza, a Black and queer political organizer based in California’s Bay Area, took to Facebook to express her feelings. She wrote a series of posts titled “A Love Letter to Black People,” which included her writing that “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter… stop giving up on black life.” At the conclusion of her post, Garza ended with an affirmation: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.”
Patrisse Cullors, a fellow activist who lived in Los Angeles and had met Garza at a conference for the Black Leadership for Organizing and Dignity, modified and summarized the message in the comments of the post: #BlackLivesMatter. At the time, her friend wasn’t all that familiar with the platform.
“I thought it was a pound sign!” Garza later admitted. “She broke down what hashtags are to me. And that’s how #BlackLivesMatter was born.”
The next day, they reached out to another fellow activist, Opal Tometi, who focused on immigration issues. She was more in-tune with social media, which had become a place for activism during the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt and Occupy Wall Street in New York several years prior. Tometi began to post #BlackLivesMatter on Twitter and Tumblr, set up accounts for the nascent movement and began to engage with the public.
Seven years later, in the summer of 2020, #BlackLivesMatter became a rallying cry for tens of millions of Americans who broke into protests across the nation, demanding justice for the victims of police executions, an end to systemic racism and equity and equality for Black people.
#BlackLivesMatter didn’t go viral right away
Though it’s now ubiquitous, used by politicians, celebrities, TV networks and corporations alike, #BlackLivesMatter wasn’t an immediate sensation or rallying cry. It was tweeted just 5,106 times during the second half of 2013, which works out to about 30 times per day.
Just over a year later, in August 2014, everything changed. A Black teenager named Michael Brown was shot and killed in the street by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Compounding the tragedy and injustice was the fact that Brown’s body was left out in the street by police for hours.
Protests broke out between the local Black community and the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter began to circulate on Twitter even before its three originators arrived on the scene with the 600 activists and protestors that Cullors and fellow activist Darnell Moore organized for a bus trip to the city.
They later reflected on the ride in an article for The Guardian:
“The ride was a call to action for Black people and their allies to fight for justice – not just for Brown and his family, but for all of us. It was a tangible example of self-determination in the face of anti-Black violence on the part of Ferguson residents and those of us who traveled from across the country to join them.”
Over the next few weeks, the hashtag was used 58,747 times per day, an astronomical increase and a portent of things to come.
When a grand jury opted not to press charges against Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Brown, the phrase became a rallying cry truly heard and amplified around the nation. On November 25, the day after the decision came down, #BlackLivesMatter was used over 170,000 times, then over 1.7 million over the next few weeks.
Protestors chanted “Black Lives Matter” in Ferguson as the city erupted into chaos, with even more fervent and urgent demonstrations that saw offshoots turn violent in expressions of pure despair and anger. It was a refrain heard in protests in cities nationwide, as well, both after the Ferguson decision and other attacks against Black Americans in the years that followed.
By the end of 2014, #BlackLivesMatter had hit the “mainstream,” which is to say that it had gotten the attention of white leaders. Hillary Clinton cited the phrase in a speech she gave that December, it appeared in a Law & Order episode and was named “Word of the Year” by the American Dialect Society.
Eventually, the hashtag turned into a larger movement
At that point, Black Lives Matter became more than a hashtag or rallying cry. It was really an umbrella term for a larger movement, which began to move in different directions, with different strategies. As The New York Times put it in 2016, “The phrase is as much a mantra as a particular organization, with the general public lumping numerous groups under the Black Lives Matter banner, even if they are not officially connected.”
“People were hungry to galvanize their communities to end state-sanctioned violence against Black people, the way Ferguson organizers and allies were doing,” Cullors wrote in 2016. “Soon after [Ferguson], Opal, Alicia, Darnell and I helped create the BLM network infrastructure. It is adaptive and decentralized with a set of guiding principles. Our goal is to support the development of new Black leaders as well as create a network where Black people feel empowered to determine our destinies in our communities.”
Some groups became involved in local politics, while others focused on more national campaigns and politicians. As a result, Black Lives Matter as an official organization became quite decentralized — it now has over 40 chapters across the country, each of which runs its own campaigns and focuses on local issues.