How The Root’s ‘After the Fire’ Series Captured an Evolving Social Justice Movement

"There is a rage, a fury that is is burning in the African-American community and I think the word fire is reflective of that sentiment."

Months ahead of what would mark one year since Michael Brown had been shot by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., The Root associate editor Danielle Belton came to managing editor Lyne Pitts with an idea. She pitched a story on Black Lives Matter and related movements to “look at the roots of the new civil rights movement, interviewing as many people as she could to look at the political, the historical, even the religions, LGBTQ components of this movement and its possible influence on the presidential election,” said Pitts.

Belton had a list of about 40 activists she planned to interview for the piece. As she began to conduct her interviews, checking in with Pitts as the piece took shape, it became clear that it was not going to be one piece, but a series. And the series would become a part of a larger project set around the one-year anniversary of the events in Ferguson that started with Brown’s death.

In addition to Belton’s four-part series, there were videos and guest posts. Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors came on as a guest editor, showcasing writing by activists and hosting a five-hour Twitter takeover on Aug. 7 tackling various aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement. The project was named After the Fire.

“If you think about the events of the last summer,” says Pitts, explaining the origins of the name, “and the events that have taken place across the subsequent months with the deaths of a number of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement, at the hands of white supremacists, there is a rage, a fury that is is burning in the African-American community and I think the word fire is reflective of that sentiment.”

But the real focus is on the aftermath. “We wanted to look at what has happened subsequent to those events, how the movement has transitioned, has grown, after this kind of boiling in the community that has taken place and that is where that reference came from,” says Pitts.

Pitts and The Root publisher Donna Byrd feel that a strong connection exists between the publication and its audience. “The Root has a place of trust and responsibility in the African American community and we take that responsibility really seriously,” says Pitt, to which Byrd adds, “Our readers often tell us we’re the place that they come to when they want to find out what’s really going on in the African-American community and they want to see their voices reflected,” says Byrd.

That relationship is reflected in its engaged audience. The Twitter takeover produced over 7 million impressions, making it one of the largest The Root has ever done. “One of the things I learned is the comments from the participants themselves–they want more dialogue like this, in this space,” says Lyne. Because of the strong response, The Root plans on holding more takeovers in the future, including one focusing on the 2016 elections.

“It was a very ambitious undertaking for us,” says Pitts of the entire endeavor. “I don’t think there is anyone who has documented in the way that we have and brought together the voices that we have to look at this movement, which has propelled itself to the national stage in the last year.”

Belton’s four-part series was the anchor for the project, but its scope extends beyond Ferguson’s anniversay. It was a deeply reported look–at once a snapshot and a living history–of a civil rights movement that is still evolving. “It was an effort to do a comprehensive evaluation of the state of the movement, its interaction with mainstream America, perspective of mainstream America, and internal challenges as well,” says Pitts. And as the movement continues to reverberate on both the national and electoral stage, it serves as a blueprint to where we are now.