Q: Who coined the phrase “Black lives matter”? Does it date back to the civil rights movement of the ’60s or maybe even earlier?
A: No, it’s more recent than that. The earliest known use of the slogan was in a Facebook posting by the activist and writer Alicia Garza in July 2013, according to The New Yale Book of Quotations (2021).
The book’s editor, Fred R. Shapiro, says Garza’s post “appears to be the introduction of the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter.’ ”
Shapiro cites this portion of the posting: “Black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter. Black Lives Matter.”
Garza wrote her post after learning that the killer of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, had been acquitted of his murder. But she has said in interviews that the popularization of the slogan was actually a three-woman project. Here’s how she describes it.
On July 13, 2013, Garza was working as an organizer with the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance in the San Francisco Bay Area when she heard news reports that George Zimmerman had been acquitted of second-degree murder in the case.
Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer in Sanford, FL, had pleaded self-defense after shooting Martin in February 2012. He had admitted following and confronting Martin, saying he looked “suspicious” and wore a “dark hoodie.” He shot Martin as the two scuffled.
As news of Zimmerman’s acquittal spread, Garza went to her Facebook page to write what she called a “a love letter to black people.” Included in her message (preceding the lines cited in The New Yale Book of Quotations) was this sentence: “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter.”
Her friend Patrisse Cullors, who was working with a prisoners’ advocacy organization, repeated Garza’s post on her own social media, echoing the “Black Lives Matter” line and making it a hashtag.
Then a tech-savvy friend of Garza’s, Opal Tometi of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, took to the internet, spreading the hashtag and making it part of a grassroots movement to stop the killing of Black Americans.
The hashtag began appearing immediately on social media in July 2013, though its presence was modest at first. According to an analysis by the Pew Research Center, it didn’t take off until the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Mo. After that, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” became ubiquitous.
Today Garza, Cullors, and Tometi have all gone on to other projects. But history will likely remember them for the movement they started in the summer of 2013.
It’s notable that women have a much larger presence in The New Yale Book of Quotations than in any other general quotation book we’ve seen.
As the introduction notes, the new book supplies “proof of the unrecognized role of women in creating iconic sayings.” It adds that Shapiro, the editor, “has discovered, time and again, that in the realm of famous lines Anonymous was often a woman.”
“Many of the great quotesmiths,” the introduction says, “have been women who are now forgotten or whose wit and wisdom are erroneously credited to more-famous men.”