Monday, November 8, 2021

Black Lives Matter in Historical Perspective

Megan Ming Francis and Leah Wright-Rigueur have published their article Black Lives Matter in Historical Perspective in volume 17 of the Annual Review of Law and Social Science.  The abstract summarizes: 

This article situates Black Lives Matter in a much longer lens and examines the long struggle to protect Black lives from state-sanctioned violence. We draw from existing research to provide a historical genealogy of the movement that traces the beginnings of a movement to protect Black lives to the work of Ida B. Wells and follows it up to the work of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the urban rebellions that have followed.

Particularly regarding the activist work of Ida B. Wells, the authors describe these historical connections to the modern BLM movement (citations omitted). 

Wells was the first person to risk her life, time after time, while conducting dangerous lynching investigations. Wells’s work highlights the importance of the process of knowledge production--the need for Black freedom fighters to collect data and write their own stories. She did not rely on the white press to get important stories out. Wells ardently believed that data collection and the keeping of records of Black death were central to holding the state accountable.


How is the information (quantitative and qualitative) produced and disseminated of which movements stake a claim against the state? This tradition of record keeping has been resurrected in the present movement. Before the BLM movement began, there was no comprehensive record of the number of people killed by police. In response, national and international news organizations began to collect data in 2014: The Guardian in the United Kingdom produced “The Counted,” and the Washington Post produced its own database of people who have been fatally shot by on-duty police, called “Fatal Force.” Meanwhile, Mapping Police Violence, a Black-led nonprofit organization, began collecting its own data. Its database is the most comprehensive and includes cases in which individuals were killed through use of chokehold, taser, or other means. The results from all three databases have been instrumental in raising public awareness about the problem of police violence.


When Wells began her activism, the protection of Black lives from lynching and mob violence was not considered a central mobilizing issue for Black people. Wells’s investigations and writings about lynchings dramatically shifted the frame of how to understand the violent spectacle. Wells named the unjust violence and called it out for being a tool of white supremacy--thereby providing the political language for Black people to articulate the harm they endured and the government’s responsibility to remedy it. Finally, it is Wells who effectively situated lynching at the crux of American democracy: To protect the voting, education, and workplace rights of African Americans, the senseless killings of African Americans had to stop.

Legal History, Race | Permalink


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