Joyce Angela Jellison is a graduate of Massachusetts School of Law and the reciepient of a North Carolina Press Association Award.
A Winter Night in Florida
Summers in Florida are ravaging, winters only slightly less brutal.
The sun rests in the palms of the aptly named Sunshine State. It rests with an unblinking and relentless stare. The evening comes cool in sultry blue blackness, casting shadow and whispering relief.
February 26, 2012, was one of these hybrid summer/winter Florida nights. It was cool enough for a 17-year-old African American boy to wrap his thin frame in a hoodie sweatshirt and cover his tightly curled hair against the shadows. Still, in the cool there was the allure of persistent warmth rising from the cracks in the sidewalks and the pockmarked streets. Heat that was elicited in the seductive sway of the trees assaulted by winds hinting at the possibility of rain.
Trayvon Martin's Murder
This boy, Trayvon Martin, craving sweets and perhaps battling the restlessness propelling most youth from the confines of their homes, stepped into the Florida night and was soon to become a ghost igniting and sparking a poltergeist fury in debates relative to race and politics as it is lived and experienced in America.
The facts have been restated so often, they barely need repeating. Mr. Martin, by all documented accounts, was visiting with his father in a gated community of The Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida. Only 21 days before this evening, Martin had celebrated his 17th birthday on February 5. It was the last time he would be in the circle of the living and yet he remains immortal. The Emmett Till of our time. Young Mr. Till, 14, was visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was murdered on August 28, 1955, by a group of white men angered by a disputed account of Till whistling at a white woman.
Martin was returning home, pockets filled with candy and a drink, when he was spotted by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, Zimmerman called the Sandford Police and despite being advised to stand down, followed the young man. The crossing of paths between a boy with one foot in manhood and a man who seems to have been struggling with his masculine foothold, was an altercation in which Zimmerman was left injured and Mr. Martin was dead from a single gunshot wound. Zimmerman, who was not immediately arrested, claimed he acted in self-defense. Then there was Mr. Martin, photos of his dead body were leaked and his body crumpled in his humanity declared our mortality. The balance and value of black lives as weighed in the psyche of white America became a question proposed and left to open to a debate perpetually rising and descending in reason and logic.
The trial and acquittal of Zimmerman of second-degree murder left a dry hollow in the throats of many African-Americans, who collectively communicated across social media forums their unease with the machinations of the justice system and the seemingly fast fading advancements of the Civil Rights era. President Barack Obama commented Mr. Martin could have been him; in fact, he could have been anyone's son.
Birth of Black Lives Matter
The country, already tragically divided on race but historically silent on the deeper implications of this divide, began to reawaken to the realities of how race is lived in America. Suddenly, the call was to make a noise, choose a side. The death of a boy with a sweet tooth in a warm Florida winter gave birth to a social justice movement demanding individuals make a choice. Birthed on social media with a simple hashtag #blacklivematter, the movement swiftly gained momentum and unlike any other organized group struggling for tangible equity for African Americans, seemed to simultaneously gain and lose its bearings in the angst and fragility in its call to action.
According to the daillybeast.com, on July 13, 2013, when Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder, Alicia Garza, an Oakland-based activist, took to Facebook to write, "Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter, Black Lives Matter." Patrisse Cullors, another activist in the area, turned the phrase into a hashtag that went on to organize mass protests over the killing of black men from Ferguson to Baltimore.
However, the most authoritative and accurate description of the Black Lives Movement comes from its initial founder, Alicia Garza. Garza states on the Black Lives Matter website, "I created #BlackLivesMatter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two of my sisters, as a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was posthumously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed."
Garza continued, "It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society and also, unfortunately, our movements. Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression."
BLM's Commitment to Inclusion
Contrary, what many, even those claiming involvement in the Black Lives Movement fail to recognize, it is not an exclusionary organization, rather it is a call to action for the civil rights of black women, members and supporters of the LGBT community, specifically reaching out to the transgender community and queer women of color.
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This is what marks the Black Lives Matter Movement as distinct from its predecessors, its global reach, its embrace of the LGBT community and its insistence on inclusion. At first glance, it would appear there is a primary focus on black males. This focus on black males would not be surprising but would serve as a consistent disappointment as many movements for social justice have not included women as intended beneficiaries of the benefits received from the struggle, rather the liberation of women has often been the result of a trickle-down effect.
Women in the midst of struggle have been historically last to receive the benefits of the very same causes for which they have fought alongside their male counterparts. History whispers of these women at the forefront of these progressive movements, the suns upon which revolutions have nested, while roaring the names of the men such as Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evans, Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and Che Guevara.
The Black Lives Matter movement with social media utilized as both a platform and tool has an unprecedented arch, yet how this translates into change is yet to be seen. It is a call to action, yet the specific demands remain unclear. This indefiniteness also separates this movement from its predecessors.
As led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s had explicit, pronounced initiatives and strategies by which to achieve those goals. A highlight of that era and a hallmark of the Civil Rights Movement was its ability to galvanize individuals from passive participation into active, hands-on involvement. The Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 were a part of the voting rights movement underway in Selma, Alabama. Those marches specifically sought to address the issue of African Americans obstructed from registering to vote.
The results of those protests have become historically measurable and have had a sustainable impact.
Results of the Selma to Montgomery Marches at a Glance
- Speech "The American Promise" delivered by Lyndon B. Johnson as Special Message before Congress
- Introduction of Senate bill 1564, a voting rights bill, in the 89th United States Congress
- Hastened passage of voting rights bill in Congress
- Speech " How Long? Not Long?" delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. at the Alabama State Capitol
Admittedly, the Black Lives Matter movement is in relative infancy. It would be unfair to entirely juxtapose this current movement against the Civil Rights Movement, but arguably it is fair to question its effectiveness and what has been gained in the three years since its awkward birth.
As it stands the trifecta of three female social activists has resulted in discussion, debate and in many cases protests that have often spilled violently into the streets. What the movement calls for is at once tangible and intangible.
Racial Justice: From Moment to Movement
According to Black Lives Matter.com, the organization states it is not a "moment but rather a movement.
What is a movement if not a compilation of moments?
Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, Harriet Tubman navigating treacherous paths to lead others to freedom, Booker T. Washington building Tuskeegee University from a farmhouse, Mamie Till insisting the world look at the battered body of her dead son. These are moments that recall turbulence, triumph and speak of strategy.
So in a movement, sparked by a moment—a craving, the insistence to satisfy a sweet tooth, must eventually move beyond the hashtags and perhaps, unto statehouse steps and see itself translated into legislation. In our political system of bicameralism, this is the sword by which we live and die in America—legislative action. This was not lost on Thurgood Marshall in ending the "separate but equal" philosophy of school segregation.
Arguably, the Black Lives Matter Movement with its agenda of including those excluded from past struggles for equality is unprecedented and to that end it must begin to at least begin bear tangible fruit. There is a renewed and perhaps a more urgent insistence that to do less would be a further injustice and would serve as not a movement but as no more than a sweet given to a child to quell a political temper tantrum.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.