The Ms. Q&A: Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Opal Tometi on the Fight for Racial Justice

“It should be no real surprise to people that Black Lives Matter was founded by three women. However, I find often people are surprised to learn that. The fact is that Black women and women, period, are oftentimes key architects of social movements.”

The Ms. Q&A: Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Opal Tometi on the Fight for Racial Justice
“We were never just an online social media hashtag,” said Tometi, “but we were always about embodying our values and using the online tools to take action in our real lives offline. Pictured: Opal Tometi at TEDWomen 2016 in San Francisco. (Marla Aufmuth / TED)

Opal Tometi co-founded Black Lives Matter in 2013 alongside activists Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors. Eight years later, the Black Lives Matter movement has spread around the world and just last week was nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for its “achievement in raising global awareness and consciousness about racial injustice.”

Additionally, Tometi was named by Time Magazine as one of 2020’s 100 most influential people and on the BBC’s List of 100 Inspirational Women.

Listen to the full interview with Opal Tometi on the Seeking Peace podcast, hosted by Ambassador Melanne Verveer, or read the interview below:


Ambassador Melanne Verveer: Do you remember when you first encountered the concept of race—or experienced racism?

Opal Tometi: I first became aware of racism in the first grade, to be quite honest. I was quite young. I was in a classroom and running towards the door and tripped over the foot of a young boy in the class and he lashed out at me. And he called me the N-word. And I remember not knowing what that meant, but I remember his reaction towards me was so visceral and so emotional that I went back home and essentially told my parents.

I didn’t know what I was telling them, but I related to them that there was a young boy who was mean to me that day and he said this thing and I didn’t know what it was. And the next day my parents showed up at school. I don’t know what they said to my teacher, but I remember them having a conversation with my teacher and that never happened again. And that to me was the first instance of advocacy that happened on my behalf and for me, and I appreciate my parents for doing that.

The Ms. Q&A: Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Opal Tometi on the Fight for Racial Justice
Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, are interviewed by Mia Birdsong (not shown) at TEDWomen in October 2016 in San Francisco. (Marla Aufmuth / TED)

Verveer: Can you take us back to the moment when the idea for Black Lives Matter was born?

Tometi: Black Lives Matter was born… Oh, my gosh, over seven years ago now. And it really came about because myself, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, are community organizers. And what is important for folks to know is that we started because a 17-year-old boy, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed in his own neighborhood, in his own community, for no reason.

And George Zimmerman, the man who murdered him, was on trial and everyone around the country and really around the world were watching this court case unfold. And it felt as though the young Trayvon Martin was on trial for his own murder. And it was unconscionable. It was intolerable the way that they tried to really scrutinize his character and just almost—gosh—assassinate his character in so many ways.

We were upset and then got the news that George Zimmerman was acquitted. I got the news via text and tweets, and just cried. And then it occurred to me that it was because of my youngest brother. I have two younger brothers, but my youngest brother at the time was 14. And I remember thinking to myself that he is going to remember this story for the rest of his life and that this story is going to mark his generation. And because it’s such a historic case and a historic outcome that I didn’t want that to be the end of the story. I quite literally was like, “This is not it. This cannot be… We can’t just take this guilty verdict and not say or do anything about it.”

And so, like many people, I went to social and began to see different texts and tweets and so on, and I saw Alicia Garza’s Facebook post, which essentially read as a love note and said something to the effect of, you know, “Black people, I love you, I love us, our lives matter.” And Patrisse Cullors, who I actually didn’t know at the time, she put a hashtag in the comments section. And I reached out to her the next day and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing, I hear some murmurings, I’m seeing this post, but I think we really should do something here.”

And, you know, I was already community organizing with an organization called the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. I was already directing that group, an explicitly Black organization working on immigrant rights and racial justice. But I knew that something more needed to be done. And she also agreed, and so I bought Blacklivesmatter.com, and then I created our Facebook page and started our Twitter page and then sent an email blast to a network of dozens and dozens of Black community organizers and essentially invited them to join the project. And let them know, “Hey, we’re starting this thing. You know, we’re going to start all using the hashtag Black Lives Matter, and we should all share what we’re doing to ensure that Black lives do matter.”

That was back in 2013. But then, 2014 came around and what took place in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, was equally as important and equally seared into the imagination of the entire United States, but also around the world. And that is the murder of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson and the acquittal that happened soon thereafter. Mike Brown was murdered and his body was left to lay in the streets for over four and a half hours. And that entire experience, that incident of seeing his body laid in the street was jarring and disturbing for the entire community and really for the entire world. So many of us really decry what took place as though it were a public lynching, because if you remember in the past, there were these lynchings and they would leave Black bodies for the entire community to see. And that was how this felt. And it caused the community of Ferguson to mourn in public, but to be outraged in public.

And what took place was that they were met—their righteous mourning, their righteous rage—with a militarized police force and they were tear gassed and they were brutalized and the entire world watched. And we largely were watching via social media, via streaming by some amazing activists on the ground. And so we went to Ferguson because we saw what was happening and we wanted to ensure that we were showing up for one another. And so with less than two weeks of organizing, there was a mobilization of over 500 Black people to Ferguson, Missouri. And we were engaged in rallies. We had healing circles. We did a lot of really amazing work.

Out of that gathering came the inspiration for creating a global network. So those are, I feel, the two important things for folks to know. We were never just an online social media hashtag and “that was all we are,” but we were always about embodying our values and using the online tools to take action in our real lives offline.

The Ms. Q&A: Black Lives Matter Co-Founder Opal Tometi on the Fight for Racial Justice
“We started because a 17-year-old boy, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed in his own neighborhood, in his own community, for no reason,” said Tometi. Pictured: A Trayvon Martin march in Queens, N.Y., in March 2012. (Shawn D. Ashley / Flickr)

Verveer: What does it say that you and your co-founders are all women? Does gender play a significant role in Black Lives Matter?

Tometi: It should be no real surprise to people that Black Lives Matter was founded by three women. However, I find that oftentimes people are surprised to learn that. And the fact is that Black women and women, period, are oftentimes key architects of social movements, of community organizations. And they’re really pioneering in so many ways. And far too often we get erased from the books and our names don’t get shared and so on. But the fact of the matter is, and especially in this case, that, yes, three Black women helped to found Black Lives Matter.

And I love the fact that we’re three women who started this. I think it’s brilliant. I think the fact that my sisters are queer, myself with a background of having immigrant parents, just the diversity even within who it is that we are allows us to have a necessary perspective and organizing framework that is really inclusive and that demands that we support, protect and defend all Black people, period.

Verveer: We are on the threshold of having a Black woman, the first woman ever in the United States, as vice president. What are your hopes for the new administration?

Tometi: I hope that they will continue to listen to the voices of the people who’ve taken to the streets, but who also went to the polls and voted them into office. We need them to listen to our demands, listen to our concerns—from police brutality to how we’re handling the pandemic.

Black people are the most acutely impacted by this virus. We’re seeing in the U.S. that disproportionately Black people are contracting and dying from COVID-19. And so, to me, we need leaders who are going to address this crisis head on that aren’t going to pass the buck, that aren’t going to prioritize big business over families, and that are going to address issues of systemic inequality, of racism, of sexism, the gender disparities head on. And my hope is that, as folks who worked tirelessly and organized around the clock, that our voices will be heard, that we will have a seat at the table, and that we can have real partners who work with us to build the kind of democracy that works for everybody.

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