An early statement of our understanding of the founding principles of this country was written in 1892 by a “socialist pastor,” Francis Bellamy, and is restated by most of us very often: “One Nation, under God [added in 1954], indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for All.”
That idea has evolved over the years since, as we now know and understand, the notion was, at that time, actually only for white men who owned property. It was not meant for the Black people that were “owned” by those who wrote those words. It was not meant for the indigenous people who were here long before those who wrote those words. It was not meant for women who gave birth to those men who wrote those words.
Thankfully, we have expanded our understanding of those ideas, but to too many of us they remain just that, words. To help expand those words into actual meaning for us all, the Black Lives Matter movement was born in 2013 after Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, 17-year-old Black youth, was shot and killed by a vigilante who was subsequently found “not guilty” of murder.
“Black Lives Matter” is a simple, declarative statement. To some folks, the idea behind “BLM,” as it is often referred to, is offensive as it seems to be saying that other lives don’t matter. From that sense of offense, the alternative statements were created “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter.” That begs the question, does my saying Black Lives Matter mean I think/believe that other lives do not matter? I believe that is not the case. I can say, with certainty, that Black Lives Matter. That certainty does not preclude me believing that other lives matter, too.
So, what is the point? From their website: “Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”
Their point is clear and should resonate with many in our community, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, as echoing that of another such organization, the American Indian Movement. Both of these groups were begun in order to address the oppression that was experienced by their respective minority group. Like BLM, the AIM members were driven to act by what they experienced that resulted in loss of life, land, culture and freedom. The BLM movement and the AIM are both built on the foundation of the Civil Rights movement and are working toward a universal realization of the stated goal of “Liberty and Justice for All.” But it goes even further than that.
We have seen over the past few months and years and decades (centuries?), but most recently on TV and on the internet, the taking of lives. Lives cut short and some/most in despicable ways, such as George Floyd. We all know the names: Trayvon, George, Breonna, Philando and many more. BLM is working to achieve the dream of that other founding document, the Declaration of Independence, that states the inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We have to be alive and have liberty to pursue happiness.
The topic of race relations is complex and has a long history. The New Orleans Massacre in 1866 and the Tulsa Massacre in 1921 both resulted in the death of many Black people at the hands of armed white people. To move beyond that, much progress has been made, but we have a way to go.
So yes, Black Lives Matter. Making that positive declarative statement does not mean other lives do not matter, it simply means what it says.
Robert Lee is a retired social worker with interests in history and politics. He lives in Tahlequah.