Say Their Names

How Black Lives Came to Matter in America


By Michael H. Cottman

By Patrice Gaines

By Curtis Bunn

By Nick Charles

By Keith Harriston

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This definitive guide to America's present-day racial reckoning examines the forces that pushed our unjust system to its breaking point after the death of George Floyd.

For many, the story of the weeks of protests in the summer of 2020 began with the horrific nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds when Police Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd on camera, and it ended with the sweeping federal, state, and intrapersonal changes that followed. It is a simple story, wherein white America finally witnessed enough brutality to move their collective consciousness. The only problem is that it isn't true. George Floyd was not the first Black man to be killed by police—he wasn’t even the first to inspire nation-wide protests—yet his death came at a time when America was already at a tipping point.
In Say Their Names, five seasoned journalists probe this critical shift. With a piercing examination of how inequality has been propagated throughout history, from Black imprisonment and the Convict Leasing program to long-standing predatory medical practices to over-policing, the authors highlight the disparities that have long characterized the dangers of being Black in America. They examine the many moderate attempts to counteract these inequalities, from the modern Civil Rights movement to Ferguson, and how the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others pushed compliance with an unjust system to its breaking point. Finally, they outline the momentous changes that have resulted from this movement, while at the same time proposing necessary next steps to move forward.
With a combination of penetrating, focused journalism and affecting personal insight, the authors bring together their collective years of reporting, creating a cohesive and comprehensive understanding of racial inequality in America.


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by Marc H. Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League

I was already Mayor of New Orleans, and Michael Cottman was a seasoned journalist with a Pulitzer Prize under his belt when first we met. But we share a deeper connection as children of the Civil Rights Movement. Born into the waning days of Jim Crow, we are a generation whose childhood was shaped by desegregation and Black Power, who came of age during the cultural backlash of the Reagan Revolution.

In the years since I moved on from mayor to president and CEO of the National Urban League, we have spoken frequently about the issues and developments impacting Black Americans, from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, through Barack Obama's historic election as the nation's first Black president, to the alarming rise of white supremacist ideology under Donald Trump.

There are perhaps no journalists working in the United States better positioned to put the Black Lives Matter movement and the cultural uprising of 2020 into historical perspective than Michael Cottman, Curtis Bunn, Patrice Gaines, Nick Charles, and Keith Harriston. Through moving personal accounts and a detailed grasp of history, they trace the spiritual legacy of anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells to the fearless women who created #BlackLivesMatter and laid the groundwork for "a moment when the world is cracked wide open."

I call myself a "child of the movement" in the most literal of senses: My mother, Sybil Haydel, was home in New Orleans on summer break from her graduate studies at Boston University when she attended a Great Books discussion of W. E. B. Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk. After the book discussion, she became immersed in a conversation with a self-confident young civil rights attorney about Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, which had been decided just weeks earlier. She returned to Massachusetts that August wearing Ernest "Dutch" Morial's fraternity pin.

The struggle for civil rights and social justice and its violent backlash have been an ever-present force in my life from my earliest childhood. I remember my father honking his car horn each evening when he arrived home from work and waiting for my mother to flash the car port lights on and off; this was the system they devised in response to the constant death threats he received as president of the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP. Racially motivated police brutality was among the greatest challenges both during my father's term as Mayor of New Orleans and during mine. When I took office, New Orleans led the nation in the number of civil rights complaints against its police department.

But 2020 was a year like no other. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to tighten its grip on the nation, the National Urban League identified it as a crisis of racial equity. The limited access to quality health care, lower rates of health insurance, higher rates of chronic illness, and implicit bias in health care delivery that saturated Black America before 2020 were the accelerant that spread the flame of COVID-19 racing through our communities. African Americans and Latinos were more than three times as likely to contract the coronavirus as whites, and African Americans nearly twice as likely to die.

Black workers were overrepresented among low-income jobs that could not be done from home as the economy cratered, and Black unemployment soared by nearly 250% from February to April.

As the nation's economic first responders, the National Urban League and our network of ninety affiliates around the nation faced our greatest challenge in a generation. As our affiliates leaped into service as COVID testing facilities, distribution points for food and medical supplies, and emergency employment clearinghouses, we waged a fierce and unrelenting advocacy campaign to target economic relief to communities' Black-owned businesses.

Into this simmering cauldron of grief and economic desperation—already overheated by the staggering rollback of civil rights protections under the Trump administration—fell the brutal killing of George Floyd.

For Black Americans battling a disease that left its victims gasping for air, George Floyd's final words, "I can't breathe," became a heartbreaking emblem of systemic racism. The aloof expression on Officer Derek Chauvin's face, as he calmly crushed the life from Floyd's body, became an emblem of white indifference to Black suffering.

It was a time to respond—not with despair, but with determination. The National Urban League joined with other civil rights organizations to demand the reforms that became the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. As a community, we demanded justice for the victims of racially motivated police violence across the country.

This book, like 2020 itself, ends with what Washington Post journalist Dorothy Butler Gilliam calls "an explosion of Black hope." But our hope must be tempered with caution. We cannot emerge from this year of crisis only to fall back into the same patterns and practices that created the crisis in the first place. We need to see the span of history encapsulated in these pages and let it inform the future. We must be vigilant, we must be forceful, and we must continue to "Say Their Names" if we are to sustain the momentum of this movement.

Why Black Lives Matter Matters

By Curtis Bunn

Of all the action Black Lives Matter has taken, all the change it has effected, all the controversy it has engendered, its most significant feat is this: It has awakened anew the power that resides within Black people.

From every part of the United States, African Americans charged to the forefront of the BLM movement. They brought all of their emotions—their anger, their fears, their boundless optimism, and, mostly, their courage. BLM was born in the shadows of the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman, who had gunned down seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. It rose to a world-shaking phenomenon in 2020, after George Floyd was murdered under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

That heinous act illuminated why Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi—three Black women—created what they describe as a "Black-centered political will and movement."

It was Garza, who is from Los Angeles and lives in Oakland, who coined the phrase "Black Lives Matter." Trayvon Martin was shot and killed on February 26, 2012, when confronted by an armed Zimmerman as Trayvon returned to his father's fiancée's home from a convenience store in Sanford, Florida. Garza posted the phrase as an emotional proclamation on Facebook in response to the anguish she felt, a suffering magnified by knowing there were so many others like it.

It became the most used phrase in the lexicon around the world. It was a rallying cry, a call for justice, an exaltation of human worth, an expression of desperation.

Garza's mother is Black, her father Jewish. She calls herself a "queer social justice activist" and is married to Malachi Garza, a transgender male activist.

Khan-Cullors, whose mother is a Jehovah's Witness, is gay and an activist from Los Angeles. She served in the trenches of criminal justice reform and led Reform LA Jails' "Yes on R" campaign, a ballot initiative that passed by a 73 percent landslide victory in March 2020. Her Twitter use of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter sparked an explosion on that social media platform.

Tometi is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. She lives in New York, has been involved in social movements for two decades, and is the executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Tometi is married with children. She built the BLM website.

These are the three women who have changed the world.

These are the three women who, in changing the world, thrust its vicious underbelly into everyone's consciousness.

They are not the first to do so, however. They are, indeed, following a legacy of female leaders who fought tirelessly for justice since the 1800s. There was Ida B. Wells, a former slave who became a journalist and activist who spearheaded an anti-lynching campaign in the United States in the 1890s.

Long before Rosa Parks and others refused to give up their seats and move to the back of the bus, Wells, in May 1884, would not relinquish the first-class train seat she purchased to retreat to the "Colored Car," as ordered. She was forcibly removed from the train, but not before she bit one of the men on the hand. Wells won a $500 settlement in a circuit court case. But the Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned the decision. That's when she began writing about social injustices and became an activist.

"One had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap," she said.

There was Charlotta Bass, the first Black woman to run for vice president, in 1952. She was on the ballot with presidential candidate Vincent Hallinan of the left-wing Progressive Party. A former journalist, Bass was the co-president of the Universal Negro Improvement Association in the 1920s and created the Home Protective Association, which fought against laws that prevented Black people from becoming homeowners. So aggressive were her stances that the FBI put her under surveillance.

After becoming the vice presidential nominee, Bass said: "For the first time in the history of this nation a political party has chosen a Negro woman for the second highest office in the land. It is a great honor to be chosen as a pioneer. And a great responsibility. But I am strengthened by thousands on thousands of pioneers who stand by my side and look over my shoulder—those who have led the fight for freedom, those who led the fight for women's rights, those who have been in the front line fighting for peace and justice and equality everywhere. How they must rejoice in this great understanding which here joins the cause of peace and freedom."

There was Shirley Chisholm, who went from voicing her strong views on racial and gender discrimination as a member of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters to becoming the first Black woman elected to Congress. The former New York state legislator, who had worked as a nursery school teacher and later as a director of schools for early childhood education, served seven terms in the House of Representatives and introduced more than fifty pieces of legislation.

There was Patricia Harris, who worked with many presidents of the United States and became the first African American woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, under Jimmy Carter in 1977. She also was named co-chair of the National Women's Committee for Civil Rights by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and was made an American envoy by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

"I feel deeply proud and grateful to knock down this barrier, but also a little sad about being the 'first Negro woman' because it implies we were not considered before," Harris said.

There were countless other Black women who felt, like the Black Lives Matters founders, the call to address systemic racism—enduring police killings of mostly Black people and social injustice—and acted.

With BLM, its ultimate strength rests with its revealing force and its galvanizing influence. Things about America, shameful things that had been pushed aside but mostly ignored, were illuminated as if by the sun. And leaders have emerged, many young, eager, and courageous, who will extend this fight into the future.

And they did so without the Black church as the anchor of its organization, as it was during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. That religious entity took its concerns from the pulpit to the pavement, led by the indomitable Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a band of faith leaders who were relentless and courageous.

The marches and boycotts inspired change and iconic milestones in history, including the Supreme Court declaring bus segregation unconstitutional in 1956 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, among many other society-changing policies.

Dr. King and the army of civil rights troops showed the way. Black Lives Matter adopted those principles and kicked it up several notches, eschewing the church and relying instead on a not-taking-no-for-an-answer, unrelenting, in-your-face methodology, led by young people, that did not slow down, even during the coronavirus pandemic that disproportionately devastated Black communities across America.

So how did we get here? Structural and systemic racism have been at the heart of Black people's suffering since the first ships with enslaved Africans arrived on the shore of Jamestown, Virginia, on August 20, 1619. The killings of Trayvon Martin and George Floyd, Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland and John Crawford…and on and on, are a part of the white supremacy ideology that has made the United States go. The three founders of Black Lives Matter had had enough and moved to reenergize the civil rights movement.

BLM, as it would turn out, is the biggest movement in American history, according to analysts, with up to 26 million people participating in the nationwide demonstrations. On the world stage, there were protests in sixty countries and all continents except Antarctica. Its global reach was the result of savvy leveraging of social media platforms, where messaging and rally locations were shared widely.

Much more than that, it was its way of enhancing the citizenry's understanding of structural racism, using racist incidents that were different in nature but connected in spirit. And there were many.

Its mantra: "There's a Mike Brown in every town."

And yet, the idiom Black Lives Matter was an "umbrella" term, Tometi said. As Black people are not monolithic, the term captured all lifestyles and heritages of Black people. Indeed, it was the organization's most viable attribute: It stood for everyone, endowing every Black person's vested interest.

At the same time, the founders were intentional in not being the focal point of the cause. There were at least forty chapters in American cities, the idea being that vast leadership will allow the movement to sustain itself through numbers.

The co-founders travel with security. Their lives have been threatened by white supremacists. They are followed by law enforcement. The FBI raided the home of an extremist and found two of the founders' names on a watch list. The risk of death is real.

In an interview with the Guardian, Tometi explained why having a single confirmed leader out front would be a disadvantage. "I see what has happened in the past, where there has been one or two figureheads and those people have been assassinated," she said. "It really destabilized their organizations. So, what we're trying to do now is be stronger than we ever were before. Leaders are everywhere. Yes, one might go, but there will be ten more that pop up."

Translation: They were prepared to die for the cause.

The Matter of Protests

BLM was ignited by the tragic killings of Black men by white men, either law enforcement, wanna-be law enforcement, or so-called vigilantes. The uprisings were heightened by the death of Black women, Sandra Bland in police custody in Texas, and later by the shooting death of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, with many others in between. But the vast issues that plague Black life spread about like tributaries flowing from a river.

The movement had multiple layers—police reform at the top to eliminate the blatant disregard for Black life, but also with job equity, the wealth gap, public health, fairness in housing and education—just about every element of life where being Black was a disadvantage, which was every walk of life.

"We primed the ground for a moment when the world is cracked wide open," said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Los Angeles BLM chapter. "We set things up to get folks to reimagine public safety and think beyond policing. I think we've ushered in transformative change in many different regards."

In her best-selling book When They Call You a Terrorist, Khan-Cullors wrote: "In Los Angeles, working primarily with women, many of them students from Cal State, I begin planning what will become the largest march I've ever planned up until that point. I put a call out on Facebook for people to come to Saint Elmo's Village to meet…and Thandisizwe Chimurenga, one of our most beloved local journalists and radio hosts, helps get people to come. She brings Melina Abdullah, who teaches black studies at Cal State, and Melina brings her students, and together we formed the core of what will become the organizing committee for our March, indeed for who we are in LA. It is the beginning of the build-out of our Black Lives Matter, Los Angeles DNA."

Similar efforts rose across the country. The movement had legs—and critics. The name Black Lives Matter scared and put off some white people, who called the organizers "terrorists," the participants "radicals," and the emphasis on Black lives exclusionary.

There were critics of the sexual orientation of the three founders, as if their views on and commitment to protecting all Black lives had anything to do with sexuality.

"I'm not going to entertain it or engage it," Abdullah said. "That's not how Black people get free. You know, fifty-seven years ago, they made the same accusations and allegations around Bayard Rustin (who fought for civil and gay rights in the 1960s and was the primary organizer of the 1963 March on Washington) and it's fifty-seven years ago, a bunch of Black male pastors said, 'You know what? Bayard Rustin is too important to the movement. Barbara Jordan is too important to the movement.' All of these queens and trans folk who helped to conceptualize, conceive of and usher forward the movement need to be given priority. And we're not going to entertain it, certainly. Fifty-seven years later, we should be taking at least that strong of a position."

She added: "There's always been homophobic and transphobic people, and those are the people we want to engage. So, you know, it's our proclamation that all Black lives matter. And anybody who thinks that someone's Black life doesn't matter because of sexual orientation or gender identity or class, then [that's] their problem."

That dogged perspective permeated the BLM movement. You have a problem with how we do things? Get over yourself.

The confidence in how the leadership went about its work was decisive and unyielding, which created a unified approach, whether the march was in New York or Denver, Detroit or Memphis.

"I am clear, we are clear," Khan-Cullors wrote, "that the only plan for us, for Black people living in the United States—en masse, if not individually—is all tied up to the architecture of punishment and containment. We are resolute in our call to dismantle it."

Tacuma Peters, an assistant professor at Michigan State University in the James Madison College, which focuses on politics and social politics and society, said the 1960s efforts led mostly by clergy and the 2020 BLM efforts led mostly by Black women are the same, but different.

"So, there are things that we can point to that have historical precedents," Peters said. "And then there's things that are wholly new. So I think that the things that we have seen before is the care that Black communities have for their children and have for their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and their neighbors, and rallying around particular people or particular events as a way to both honor those who have been taken away, but also as a way to really push politically and socially for change that is affecting the supermajority, if not all Black people.

"So, I think there's a way just to think about how this is different. I think people have pointed out repeatedly how the protests, the initial Black Lives Matter protests, are actually important for understanding our contemporary moment: that something happened five or six years ago that allowed for a particular groundswell of particular individuals."

Peters said the formulation of BLM in response to Zimmerman's acquittal for killing Martin set up the power of the 2020 movement. It was a strong, established organization and prepared to mobilize. And for their work, Black Lives Matter was nominated for a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. In Norwegian MP Petter Eide's official nomination papers, obtained by CNN, he wrote that he nominated the movement "for their struggle against racism and racially motivated violence." Eide added, "BLM's call for systemic change [has] spread around the world, forcing other countries to grapple with racism within their own societies."

Peters said: "If you were to ask me two years ago about the effectiveness of the first iteration of Black Lives Matter, part of it, would it be talking about maybe [laws passed that required police to wear] body cams. But [in 2020], if we want to talk about the impact of Black Lives Matter, it is the fact that that first iteration made the second iteration possible. I always want to think about how the consciousness of people, Black people, but not exclusively Black people, was raised. People were making policy decisions. They came to the center at least for a little bit for a certain discussion. And [in 2020] we [saw] an extension of that with new players, but also some of the same people in a further raising in Black communities, in Latino communities, in larger white America of a certain type of consciousness of death at the hands of the police.

"Part of the newness from the perspective of larger white, but not only white America, is a visceral reaction to particular deaths…visceral reaction that we didn't see three, five, six years ago. That is part of the newness. Another part of this is the way in which calls for defunding police and the calls for abolition, calls for really dismantling…the police state are gaining more traction in places within the Black community and outside of the Black community where they were never given any credence. That is very important because there has been a shift [in] understanding that what needs to happen is a radical dismantling of a whole system that captures many Americans in its maws, and that there needs to be some radical change on the local level that is not going to be just 'reform.' And I think that's a pretty big change."

Black Lives Matter, Peters said, "confounded people" because it energized a base that had been tired of being marginalized, especially in the aftermath of the killing of Black people in suspect circumstances.

Law enforcement, on the other hand, was hardly energized by BLM. Rather, there was a tangible contempt for the organization and what it represented, evident by its aggressive posture and its persistent counter-message of "Blue Lives Matter."

Often in riot gear and contentious, police and, in some cases, the National Guard aggressively confronted BLM protesters and used physical tactics, including clubs, shields, pepper spray, and rubber bullets to assert their authority.

Additionally, the intimidation factor was omnipresent. There were countless images of officers pointing weapons at unarmed protesters, including women and children, marchers knocked to the ground, choking on tear gas, getting pushed back, run over and arrested. Army tanks traveled up Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C. during the BLM march following George Floyd's killing.

"As we were fighting police brutality, we're also experiencing police brutality," Melina Abdullah said.

"I didn't feel safe with the police wearing riot gear, holding automatic weapons and tasers just feet away from me," said Samantha Myers, who participated in the BLM protests in Washington, D.C., where there was a significant show of force. "I felt uncomfortable in the presence of the police, in fear that I or a loved one would be injured while demanding justice for Black lives and the end of systemic oppression."

Jordan Sims, a high school student in Atlanta, was pepper-sprayed in the face at a protest in Georgia's capital city. "I was on the front line," Sims recounted. "We were chanting. Everything was fine. Then the police officers got agitated and started pushing us back. And it turned into chaos, and someone pulled out the pepper spray and got me—for no reason."

A Black woman, Leslie Furcron of San Diego, was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet during a Black Lives Matter demonstration on May 30, 2020, after she tossed an empty Red Bull can several feet away from the line of police officers dressed in riot gear, with weapons aimed at protesters. The officer who permanently blinded Furcron in one eye was never brought up on charges.

In Minneapolis, 650 people, mostly Black, were arrested during a march on a highway that had been peaceful—until state troopers surrounded the demonstrators and ordered everyone to sit on the ground. A nineteen-year-old was charged with felony riot. Her offense? She shone a laser pointer in the eyes of a police officer.

Officers in riot gear disrupted a solemn violin vigil on a lawn for a Black man who had died during a police arrest in the Denver suburb of Aurora. They gushed pepper spray at families with kids, sending them scurrying.

Those are only a handful of the countless uses of force around the country against BLM marchers, unprovoked acts against Black people that were magnified by the contrast of law enforcement's reaction on January 6, 2021, to the mob of largely white Donald Trump supporters who marched to and commandeered the U.S. Capitol. Many believed that Trump had incited the crowd at a rally, exhorting his followers, many of whom were connected to white supremacist and conspiracy theorists' groups, to march to the Capitol and to be "strong" in their actions.

With little resistance from Capitol Police, the gang—wearing Trump paraphernalia, carrying Confederate flags and weapons, and spewing nonsensical gibberish about America being "their" country—stormed a building that was supposed to be one of the most secure in the world. Capitol Police, overrun and understaffed, essentially played matador, stepping aside to let them bull-rush the hallowed building constructed by enslaved Black people beginning in 1793. The National Guard was called in much too late to stop the mob.


On Sale
Jul 11, 2023
Page Count
352 pages

Michael H. Cottman

About the Author

Curtis Bunn is an award-winning journalist who has written about race and sports and social and political issues for more than 30 years in Washington, D.C., New York, and Atlanta. Additionally, he is a best-selling author of ten novels that center on Black life in America.

Michael H. Cottman is an author and award-winning journalist, and the Editorial Manager of NBCBLK, a division of NBC News, that offers stories and opinions about the African American experience from the African American perspective. Cottman is a former political reporter for the Washington Post and a former reporter for the Miami Herald, among other publications. Cottman, who has received numerous awards, was also part of a Pulitzer Prize, for Newsday's coverage of a deadly subway crash in New York in 1992.
Patrice Gaines is author of the memoir Laughing in the Dark (Random House, 1995) and Moments of Grace (Random House, 1998). Gaines is a freelance writer, who was a reporter at the Washington Post for 16 years. While at the Post, she was the member of a team nominated as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She was awarded a Soros Justice Media Fellowship to write a series of columns about the impact of incarceration on the Black community. At age 21, Gaines was found guilty of drug charges and forever labeled a “convicted felon.” In the decades since, she has spoken and taught in prisons and jails, and also lectured at colleges and conferences on brutality and failure of America’s criminal justice system. Gaines is also a justice advocate and abolitionist.
Nick Charles has reported, written, and edited for various media at domestic and international levels. He has been a reporter/writer and contributor to Long Island Newsday, Daily News, NY,  People, NPR, the Washington Post, and The Undefeated, as well many other media outlets. He was the Editor-in-Chief of AOL Black Voices and the VP of Digital Content for He's currently the Managing Director of Word In Black, a national collaborative of 10 Black-owned media and an editor and spokesperson for Save Journalism Project.
Keith Harriston is a writer based in Washington, D.C. who worked for 23 years as a senior newsroom manger, department editor, investigative reporter, and beat reporter at the Washington Post. As a reporter at The Post, Harriston twice was a nominated finalist by the Pulitzer Prize Board. Since leaving The Post, Harriston has taught journalism at American University, Howard University, and George Washington University, where he currently is a professorial lecturer in journalism.

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