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MPH Program in Health Services
More Black History Month Profiles . . .

Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, & Opal Tometi

Community organizers and activists Alicia Garza (from Oakland, CA), Patrisse Cullors (from Los Angeles, CA), and Opal Tometi (from Phoenix, AZ) are the three co-founders of Black Lives Matter (BLM), an international civil and human rights movement originating in the African American community, which campaigns against violence and systemic racism, including police killings of unarmed African Americans.

On July 13, 2013, George Michael Zimmerman was on trial in Florida for the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin (1995-2012). He had been functioning as a neighborhood watch coordinator, when he confronted the unarmed African American teenager, and during a scuffle, shot him to death. After a lackluster police investigation, Zimmerman was acquitted, based on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. These three Black women protested Zimmerman’s acquittal, by creating and sharing the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media. 

Historians Kruse and Zelizer (2019) assert that the Black Lives Matter movement was developed in response to “a rash of killings of African Americans at the hands of police and private forces,” and that it “present[s] the strongest challenge to racism for decades.” 

The Black Lives Matter movement rose to national prominence in 2014-2015 for its street demonstrations in the wake of the murders of unarmed African Americans men and children, including: 43-year-old Eric Garner (1970-2014), who was choked to death in New York City; 18-year-old Michael Brown (1996-2014), who was shot to death in the street in Ferguson, Missouri; 12-year-old Tamir Rice (2002-2014), who was shot to death in Cleveland, Ohio; and 25-year-old Freddie Gray (1989-2015), who was beaten and died in police custody in Baltimore, Maryland.

When African American youth are killed, there is an evil and racist tendency in our society to say that “they deserved their fate.” Tamir Rice was written up in the media as being “big for his age” (and African American girls are said to mature early). When Trayvon Martin was shot to death, American media (falsely) speculated that Martin was likely a youth gang member, which may have contributed to his killer’s ultimate acquittal.

African Americans have fought back against systemic violence for generations, notably including Mamie Till (1921-2003), the mother of 14 year-old Emmett Till (1941-1955), who came from the North and was murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a White woman. Mrs. Mamie Till insisted that the casket containing the bloated, beaten, and unrecognizable body of her son be left open during his funeral, so that the world could see the unspeakable horror of racism (see Wilkinson, 2010, p369).

However, Black Lives Matter has been uniquely successful in bringing swift, national attention and action to combat anti-Black violence, using social media and demonstrations to build upon the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, Black Power, Pan-Africanism, Feminism, hip-hop and LGBTQ activism (see Kruse & Zelizer, 2019).

Author: Dr. Clarence Spigner, Health Services Professor and MPH Program Director

Photo: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, & Opal Tometi

Sources and further reading: 

  • Kevin M. Kruse & Julian E. Zelizer. 2019. Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974. W.W. Norton & Company, New York / London
  • Isabel Wilkinson. 2010. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of Americas’ Great Migration. Vintage Books. New York.
  • Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele. 2017. When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. St. Martin’s Press, New York.