In 2014, Atlanta Black Lives Matter activist and organizer Mary Hooks (center) announced plans for a rally at Underground Atlanta in response to a police officer’s fatal shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo. (.com)
Photo: BRANT SANDERLIN / bsanderlin@ajc
Photo: BRANT SANDERLIN / bsanderlin@ajc

Black Lives Matter: An activist’s evolution

“Black Lives Matter” is something we’ve been hearing a lot about at least since 2013.

The slogan became a rallying cry among protesters reeling from the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

In many ways, the movement has seemed both rudderless and leaderless, with no real mission. But that’s hardly true.

How do I know?

I’ve been paying attention, listening with both my head and heart. And I recently sat down with one of the movement’s local leaders, Mary Hooks, who serves on the national organization’s strategic planning committee.

Hooks is a 34-year-old lesbian and mother of a daughter from Sylvan Hills. You might say she found her voice in 2009 when she became a member of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), an LGBTQ-centric non-profit focused on social justice, and, like so many in the Black Lives Matter Movement, turned out to protest the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.

You might have seen Hooks speak on behalf of Black Lives Matter protesters recently at a town hall hosted by WSB-TV at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. In the years since the movement began, we’ve heard from a lot of them. I always wonder about their story, why so much passion, where did it come from and what’s behind it all. That’s why I wanted to meet Hooks.

I asked her about the moment the activist in her was born.

First she told me about her elders, who hailed from New Albany, Miss., and Tuskegee, Ala. Beginning in the late 1940s and ’50s, the migrated to Wisconsin for factory jobs and ultimately a better life.

She was a little girl when her mother got caught up in the crack epidemic and Hooks went to live with her great-aunt, who taught her to value education.

“Even when I was a rebellious teen, I still went to school and eventually college,” she said.

She was at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., in 2003 when she began to fully understand the impact of race on her community.

That year, former Black Panther Elaine Brown visited the campus to talk about her recently published book “The Condemnation of Little B,” the story of a 13-year-old black boy condemned to life in prison.

It hit her. The black community was “feeling the effects of other people’s decisions on our lives,” Hooks said. “It also became clear to me that there wasn’t a college degree that could remedy the impact that centuries of genocide on black people could fix.”

She felt the same when the government dragged its feet responding to Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans and later when protests broke out over what some considered unfair treatment of the Jena Six, the black teens convicted in the 2006 beating of a white student in Louisiana. Hooks felt an urge to show up and help.

“I wanted to be in a position where I could go when I felt called,” she said.

Hooks would eventually complete work on her degree but at the end of 2007, she felt a pull to move to Atlanta. The next year, she was at a bar here when she struck up a conversation with a woman who introduced Hooks to SONG and invited her to a leadership training session on social justice. After completing the training, Hooks began working with SONG and this year was named co-director of the 23-year-old organization.

As such, she and members of SONG have been at the forefront of the fight to end racial profiling and deportation of immigrants, have stood against anti-transgender bills and worked to build a network of LGBTQ people to fight for social change in the South.

But it wasn’t until she felt called to join the Ferguson, Mo., protests that the Black Lives Matter movement took hold of her. It was there, she said, that organizers encouraged her and other supporters to go back home and raise the issues of police and state violence in their own communities. Hooks had been hearing about the work community activist Dre Propst was doing with mothers who had lost their children to police violence. Propst knew about Hooks’ work with SONG.

In the winter of 2015, the two met for the first time and decided to form an Atlanta chapter of Black Lives Matter. They put out a call – “whosoever will let them come” — and nearly 200 people turned out at Big Bethel AME church.

In the months since, Hooks has never been more clear about what the movement is or what it isn’t.

First, it isn’t about hating white people or convincing them that black lives matter.

It is, however, “a call to black folk to fight for our safety and dignity and a reminder of our greatness,” Hooks said.

She knows not all African-Americans fully embrace the movement.

“But all black people are stigmatized by race, so we’re fighting for them too, by the way,” Hooks said.

For sure, she said the movement is about far more than black men dying at the hands of police officers. As Hooks puts it, there is a petri dish of conditions – lack of affordable housing, high unemployment rates and poverty levels, substandard public education – that make it difficult for people to survive.

All of these are a symptom of “state violence,” said Hooks.

“I see it when mothers can’t get affordable housing if a man is living in the house with her and the children and she has to choose between living with the person she loves and having a decent place to live,” she said. “It’s 72,000-plus people over the last three years in Atlanta being arrested for quality of life ordinance violations like urinating in public or panhandling, only to be put on probation for being unable to pay court fines and fees. The same dynamic is working when masses of black men are thrown in jail, forced to leave their families. This type of violence at the hands of the state can cripple people’s ability to survive, let alone thrive.”

So I asked Hooks what she would like to see happen. It was the only time she mentioned her daughter.

“I want black people to have self-determination,” she said. “I want my child and every black child to live in their full brilliance. I want my baby girl to grow up in a world that has values in which justice does not equal punishment, and the caging and killing of black and oppressed people become a practice of the past.”

It’s true, Hooks said, that many African-Americans are doing well. “Mainstream (TV) shows us in our glamour, but we shouldn’t let that blind us to the truth that the majority of black people in this country and Atlanta are suffering,” she said.

“It breaks my heart.”

Listening to Hooks, I thought of my mother who for every foot forward she took, seemed to take two steps back. I thought of critics of people like her — both black and white — who hold firm to the mantra “anyone can make it if they try.”

The truth is, in every country and in every era a few have always risen.

But as James Baldwin so succinctly put it some 45 years ago, “the inequalities suffered by the many are in no way justified by the rise of a few.”