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Images & Voices of Hope | December 2, 2020

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Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi shares how a viral social media movement became a vital voice for civil rights

Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi shares how a viral social media movement became a vital voice for civil rights

The Black Lives Matter movement began a year and a half ago as a social-media-driven outcry against police brutality and the violence against black Americans. The movement, which was started by three young women, has expanded to a network of supporters all around the nation and world.

Earlier this week I had the honor to hear Opal Tometi, one of the founders of the movement, speak at Eckerd College. Tometi, a dedicated racial justice and immigration rights activist spoke in depth about the origins of the social media movement that became a platform for social change. After witnessing her impassioned discourse, it is easy to understand why #BlackLivesMatter has become this generation’s civil rights movement.

Here are a few reflections from Tometi’s lecture…


From viral to vital

The acquittal of George Zimmerman in 2013 motivated Tometi and Black Lives Matter co-founders Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, to create the Twitter Hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter.

“How many of you remember where you were on the evening of Zimmerman’s trial?” Tometi asked the audience.

She recounted that she was leaving a movie theatre with a friend when she heard the news.

“I felt like I’d been punched in the gut,” Tometi said. “I have two younger brothers and I remember thinking this story is going to be a part of their memory forever. It is going to mark their generation.

Resolute in not wanting to be left feeling apathetic and helpless about the state of racial injustices in the country, Tometi decided to be proactive right then and there.

In the following years #BlackLivesMatter built momentum on social media and went viral.

What makes the hashtag unique is that Tometi, Garza and Cullors began organizing the movement offline as well.

An NPR Code Switch article entitled “Combing Through 41 Million Tweets To Show How #BlackLivesMatter Exploded” sites this study by media scholars Charlton McIlwain, Deen Freelon and Meredith Clark which maps the nuances of taking an online struggle offline.

Tometi, Garza and Cullors intelligently used social media to begin a broader conversation and to organized social change.

The movement now has chapters across the United States.


There are people of conscious everywhere

The virality of the online and offline movements can be traced to Tometi’s sentiment that “things go viral, not because they are frivolous, but because they are deep in our hearts.”

The three friends and co-founders were inspired by the outpour of support they received via social media and at Black Lives Matter events.

The movement gained a lot of support in 2014 after the shooting of Michael Brown. The hashtag was used by millions online and community chapters began to hold meetings and protests across the United States. 

Tometi quoted Dr. Martin Luther King throughout her presentation. “Dr King said: ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’ — but how long is it going to take? How fast can we bend it?

“In Ferguson we learned that in places of grief people were moved to their humanity and called for the world to pay attention,” Tometi said. “People who had the courage to stand for their rights are being met with teargas.”  Tometi also noted the importance of the movement in the wake of more current racial violence.

Black Lives Matters exists to help create awareness of and end racial violence.

When reflecting on the movement’s progress, after pausing for a breath, Tometi leaned in toward the mic and said, “there are people of conscious everywhere.”

This hope in the wake of violence what keeps the movement going. Since its inception, Black Lives Matter has created a revolutionary unity in black communities that have experienced trauma.

Most notably, the online and offline counterparts of the Black Lives Matter movement work together to transcend boundaries and create a multi-generational dialogue about the injustices of racial violence. From newspaper headlines to mainstream family sitcoms, the movement is influencing all kinds of media outlets.


A Justice for Sandra Bland sign rested on Tometi's stage. Dr. Martin Luther King quote used in Tometi's lecture. Photos by and courtesy of Frank Wells.

A Justice for Sandra Bland sign rested on Tometi’s stage. Another Dr. Martin Luther King quote used in Tometi’s lecture. Photos by and courtesy of Frank Wells.


The silence

Tometi’s lecture held a mirror up to the role media and societal norms play in today’s racial injustice. She expressed the contradictory state of living in a period of time where we have a black president and Oprah while continuing to witness violence across black communities.

“Before Black Lives Matter, there was a woeful silence around the killing of black people,” Tometi said. “There was a silence perhaps because we had a black president and we were supposed to be living in a post-race society.”

Stories of racism from black communities show that racial injustice is still prevalent today.

The movement, along with its media platform and chapters, has been criticized for being exclusive to one race and infringing on free speech. Yet, it is described by Tometi as a multiracial movement for black lives.

Black Lives Matter is about actualizing that another world is possible … about affirming our culture and humanity.” As we continue to read headlines of racial violence and shootings, Tometi is hopeful for a more compassionate narrative around black lives.

Towards the end of her lecture, Tometi acknowledged that despite the writing on the wall, many people still contact her questioning why the movement is centered about black lives.

These individuals approach her online and at events with an accusatory, “hey, #‎AllLivesMatter!” To which Tometi, in her steady voice responds: “Yes, I actually believe that all lives matter. But, do you?”