On June 13, 2020, Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists gathered in London's Trafalgar Square to call for the eradication of racism and white supremacy. With their fists raised high, the activists, mostly dressed in black, chanted, "Black power!" Were it not for the face masks, which they wore to help stop the spread of COVID-19, the scene could have been taken straight from the 1960s. In that earlier era, activists around the world connected their own struggles to those of African Americans who challenged segregation, disenfranchisement, poverty, and police brutality--just as their successors do today. Meanwhile, Black American activists agitated for human rights and called attention to the devaluation of Black lives not only in the United States but all over the world, including in places under colonial rule.
Many tend to think of that era's push for civil rights and Black power as a distinctly American phenomenon. It was, in fact, a global movement--and so is BLM today. By linking national concerns to global ones, BLM activists are building on a long history of Black internationalism. Indeed, Black Americans have always connected their struggle for rights to fights for freedom in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.
Although surges of Black internationalism have often been led from the top--through the efforts of politicians and diplomats--some of the most dynamic and enduring movements have developed at the grassroots, often led by Black women and involving working-class and impoverished Black people. During the twentieth century, Black internationalists organized on the local level, frequently in urban centers, to give voice to the concerns of ordinary people. Utilizing diverse strategies and tactics, they articulated global visions of freedom by working collaboratively and in solidarity with Black people and other people of color across the world. BLM activists have carried on this tradition, often using social media as a vehicle to forge transnational alliances.
Although much has changed since the 1960s, racism continues to shape every aspect of Black life in the United States. The troubling pattern of police killings of unarmed Black Americans sparked the current uprisings, but it represents only part of the problem; such killings, horrific though they may be, are merely symptoms of the deeper diseases of anti-Black racism and white supremacy. As BLM activists have emphasized, these problems are not contained within the borders of the United States: they are global scourges, and addressing them requires a global effort.
FOOTSTEPS TO FOLLOW
BLM was launched in 2013 by the activists Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi after the acquittal on murder charges of the man who killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy in Florida the previous year. Following the 2014 police shooting of another Black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, BLM evolved into a nationwide and global protest movement. In a matter of months, activists had established BLM chapters in several major cities outside the United States. In Toronto, for example, Janaya Khan and Yusra Ali co-founded a chapter in October 2014 following the police...