Situating the #BlackLivesMatter Movement

Examining the historical context of #BlackLivesMatter and the critical space Milwaukee occupies in the movement.

The murders of unarmed black peopleespecially black youth – at the hands civilians and police has spurred a more recent incarnation of the Black Freedom Struggle. The #BlackLivesMatter movement of this 21st century stands as a continuation of these longstanding fights for racial justice, addressing many of the same issues that had their genesis centuries earlier. But while the issues are comparable and the protests against racial injustice look similar, #BlackLivesMatter is emerging in a new era and new landscape that call for new tactics, particularly using digital technology as vehicle to raise consciousness and build coalitions across the nation and globe. And, as with previous eras of the Black Freedom Struggle, this movement has spawned local affiliated groups and efforts seeking to respond to continuing racial injustices in our own backyards.

The Black Freedom Struggle refers to longstanding efforts to garner racial equality in the United States, essentially since the era of slavery. However, since 1865 at the moment of emancipation and during America’s First Reconstruction, claims for full citizenship and all its privileges have occurred on various fronts, and have been directed by multiple protest groups and organizations. Securing voting and political participation, pushes for economic and employment equality, demands for fairness in education and cries to end various forms of racial violence have been the hallmarks of the Black Freedom Struggle. Part and parcel to this movement have been efforts to petition local, state and the federal government to intervene on behalf of African Americans so that constitutional rights of equal protection result in meaningful outcomes. By the 1950s and 60s America’s Second Reconstruction – the Modern Civil Rights Movement – gained enough momentum to fundamentally outlaw the remnants of slavery and Jim Crow a full century after emancipation.

The Black Freedom Struggle has extended across the hundred years or more period and witnessed many distinct local expressions. Efforts aimed at Black liberation and equality in the United States were also tied to movements in other parts of the globe — in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. The Black Freedom Struggle has had local, regional, national and global expressions all tied to broader notions of human and civil rights.

Milwaukee is, in so many ways, a critical space where contemporary manifestations of these lingering injustices continue to surface. Hyper-segregation, rabid economic disparities and police violence are key indicators of these lingering issues in our city.

We’ve witnessed key forms of resistance directly tied to the #BlackLivesMatter Movement. In response to the killing of Dontre Hamilton, the Coalition for Justice was formed to craft ongoing protests that highlight these injustices and force the city’s political leadership to respond to this and related murderous acts by law enforcement and vigilantes.

As with previous eras, a host of scholars and community voices have articulated the importance of connecting recent events to historical precedents. One prominent example stemmed from fellow educator and community activist, Reggie Jackson, Head Griot of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, who led a series of community-based lectures that historicized and questioned topics fundamental to the #BlackLivesMatter upsurge.

At the Villard Square Library for more than two weeks in early August, Jackson provided examinations of the “Historical Devaluation of Black Lives” since slavery. In his commentary, Jackson provided a glimpse into how legal and political machinations have devalued African Americans, how science and medical practices have devalued black lives and how legal and extralegal violence continues to thwart the daily experiences of African Americans locally and across the nation.

Similarly, local educators and community leaders, with #BlackLivesMatter as a touchstone, have pressed for substantive community engagement in the education of black youth across the city. In this call for overhauling K-12 curriculum, these voices have demanded our city’s educational institutions do the following: shape a learning experience that promotes the overturning of social inequality, shape critically engaged citizens, and shape an educational environment that welcomes communal input and shared responsibility.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement is, in its own words, “an ideological and political intervention.” Today, as before, though in a new terrain, this movement holds the state accountable and demands a response to a longstanding set of violent acts perpetrated by police and vigilantes alike.

Perhaps most critical to this new voice of protest is the broader net casted to envelop the basic human rights of black men and women – included within that net are the rights of hetero, queer, trans and undocumented people. More than ever, solidarity across protests communities, particularly those aligned with various incarnations of the longstanding Black Freedom Struggle, have a rallying point. Indeed, all #BlackLivesMatter!



Dr. Robert S. Smith is an Associate Professor of History at UWM, Director of the Cultures & Communities Program, and was recently appointed Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Inclusion & Engagement. He is the author of "Race, Labor and Civil Rights: Griggs v. Duke Power and the Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity. "