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The Legacy of Black Lives Matter

Historians in the News
tags: racism, civil rights, African American history, Black nationalism



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I talked to Blain, author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom, about how Black Lives Matter is advancing the efforts of hundreds of activists who fought for Black liberation in the US and abroad — and how the movement’s impact stands out from past efforts. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Fabiola Cineas

In your book and other writings, you’ve repeatedly said that Black Lives Matter is currently building on a longer history of activism. Can you explain how the organization is doing that with the protests currently underway?

Keisha N. Blain

There are several factors. I focus a bit on Black nationalist politics, and there are several threads that I see between Black nationalist movements of the 20th century and the Black Lives Matter movement.

One is the focus on community control. One of the things that Black Lives Matter activists have been demanding for quite a while is greater community control. Today we’re talking about it within the context of policing. But in general, they have been demanding the need for Black people within Black communities to make their own decisions about how the communities would be controlled and how things will be run, as opposed to having people from the outside impose upon them their strategies and tactics. And we see that certainly in the 1960s context but even earlier to the 1920s, with groups like the Universal Negro Improvement Association [a Black nationalist organization founded by Jamaican activists Amy Ashwood and Marcus Garvey]. These organizations emphasize the importance of Black communities having greater say and autonomy. So, ideologically, we see this thread.

The second connection that stands out to me is the vision of internationalism, which is one of the core ideas of the Black Lives Matter movement. I would say a lot of people don’t focus on it as much as they should. Black Lives Matter activists have been very vocal about showing that the fight to end state-sanctioned violence is not solely a US problem, but it is a global problem. And, not surprisingly, we’ve seen the creation of Black Lives Matter movements in various parts of the world — in London, Berlin, Toronto, and more. That is intentional, and it’s actually to the core of their message.

The movement has previously stated the importance of internationalism and broadening the vision beyond just a national conversation. They’ve expressed the importance of collaborating across nations to demand an end to state-sanctioned violence. This is key to various movements throughout US history. Black political movements have been deeply internationalist in their perspective, whether it’s in the ’60s with civil rights activists connecting their struggles to African liberation struggles or whether it’s even earlier Black activists standing up in defense of Ethiopia. These are the ideological threads.

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