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Black Freedom Movements in American History

Some resources to help understand protest and activism for Black freedom in American history

Black Lives Matter (BLM) is an anti-racist activist movement that formed in 2013 (following decades of Black protests for justice) after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who had shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Alicia Garza, a worker rights organizer, wrote a Facebook post after the acquittal urging black people to "fight back" against institutional racism. She ended with "Our Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter." Anti-police violence organizer Patrisse Cullors responded "#BlackLivesMatter." The movement quickly adopted a non-hierarchical structure that incorporated and made visible marginalized black people. It grew and became more visible after Ferguson (MO) police officer Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown. The movement's tactics include protests, acts of civil disobedience, challenging politicians, and rapid sharing of information through social media.

For a history of the early growth of BLM, see Herbert G. Ruffin II, "Black Lives Matter: The Growth of a New Social Justice Movement" (2015).

Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School, and the African American Policy Forum (which Crenshaw helped establish) started #SayHerName after noting that Black women victims of police violence often go unnoticed. The campaign has helped raise awareness of 22-year-old Rekia Boyd, shot and killed by an off-duty police detective in 2012; 30-year-old Malissa Williams, shot and killed by police in 2012; 37-year-old Natasha McKenna, died after being tasered in 2015; 26-year-old Meagan Hockaday, shot and killed by police in 2015; and many others. For the full 2015 SayHerName report, click here.

Because #SayHerName specifically addresses the lack of reporting on violence against Black women and this guide lists repositories of resources, the links below mostly focus on incidents when Black men were the victims.

Trayvon Martin

George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012 after calling 911 to report "a suspicious person." After being charged with second-degree murder, Zimmerman was found not guilty on July 13, 2013. 

Michael Brown

BLM gained more attention after Ferguson (MO) police officer Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 9, 2014.

Freddie Gray

Baltimore Police arrested Freddie Gray on April 12, 2015, for carrying a knife. While in a police van, Gray fell into a coma and he died a week later due to a spinal cord injury, apparently sustained while in the van.