Brittany Martin is a Black activist who was arrested after participating in a 2020 racial justice protest in Sumter, South Carolina. Although Brittany was not violent and did not destroy any property, she was sentenced to four years in prison. Today we want to give an update on her situation.
“It ain’t nothing but God keeping me,” Brittany said recently. “They’ve been trying to destroy me every step along the way, but God won’t let them.”
We are currently representing Brittany as a client and seeking her release. As always with the ACLU, we do this legal work free of charge.
You may have heard about Brittany’s case on social media or the news. In May 2020 she joined protests in her community following the brutal police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Over the course of several days, she and her neighbors in Sumter joined a worldwide movement against police violence and demanded accountability for the killing of yet another Black man by U.S. law enforcement.
She chanted “No justice, no peace,” a popular rallying cry. “We ready to die for this. We tired of it. You better be ready to die for the blue. I'm ready to die for the Black,” she said in video of the protest that circulated after her arrest. She hurt no one and damaged no property.
Police arrested her. A court sentenced her to 4 years in prison on a charge of Breach of Peace of a High and Aggravated Nature. She has served over a year in prison, and we are asking the court to vacate her conviction and free her now.
Brittany’s case inspired outrage and solidarity from across the country. South Carolina-based groups including Charleston Black Lives Matter, Black Voters Matter, and the Black Liberation Fund have been sharing petitions and keeping public pressure and awareness on her case. California-based activists with Black Lives Matter Grassroots have also been circulating a petition to free Brittany.
As civil rights attorneys including Bakari Sellers pointed out after her sentencing, Brittany received an extreme and disproportionate sentence, especially when compared to the penalties received by actual violent offenders in South Carolina. Also notable, Brittany’s sentence is far longer than most of the 277 individuals imprisoned for their roles in the January 6th insurrection that led to multiple deaths.
We are arguing in court filings that, among other things, her conviction violated her 1st Amendment right to free speech, her 8th Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment, and the 14th Amendment’s prohibition on vague laws.
Brittany has heard about the support she has received from across the country.
“Thank you. Thank you so much for keeping me in your prayers because it is really working,” she said.
Since Brittany’s arrest in May 2020, she has gone through intense struggles. She gave birth to a child while incarcerated. Corrections officers have forcibly cut her hair and isolated her from the general prison population for long periods of time. Her 18-year-old son Courtney was murdered in 2022 in Waterloo, Iowa; his murderer was convicted at trial last month.
“I didn’t even get a chance to grieve my son. I had to have my baby in prison. If anybody is supposed to give up, it’s me, but I’m staying strong,” Brittany said.
Currently Brittany is being held in an Illinois prison via an interstate compact. Her family has relocated to be near her, and they visit her often.
“I go to my Bible studies every day, go to church, get a shower, get on the phone, send my love to my babies, and then I’m back to my room,” Brittany said.
During her time behind bars, Brittany has met women going through intense grief and depression, and she said the ordeal has given her a new understanding of mental health. She tries to offer support where she can, sometimes talking with women from beneath the doors of their cells.
“The things I’ve seen behind these walls – it’s just so sad that people just give up,” she said.
Recently, she told us, some women in her unit were fighting, and she was able to broker peace.
“I said, ‘This is about peacemaking, this is about healing. We’re going to sit here and talk together as women,’” Brittany said. “So many women were healed. So many beefs were settled.”
Free Brittany Martin
Brittany shared some reflections about her life before prison – and what she plans to do when she is free again.
When she lived in Sumter, she started an organization called Mixed Sistaz United that provided community aid. She cooked free meals, led voter registration drives, organized free gas giveaways for those in need, and got involved with a push to create a homeless shelter in Sumter.
She was a relative newcomer to activism. She went to her first protest in 2016 following the police murder of Philando Castile. That same year, Sumter police fatally shot her brother-in-law 19 times after officers said he fired a gun following a chase.
“When George Floyd and Breonna Taylor got killed, that really did something to my spirit like most of the country,” Brittany said. “Being a mother of five Black men, I had to say something.”
Thinking back on her time in Sumter, Brittany remembers a photo of her that ran in the Sumter Item in 2021 after a Juneteenth celebration that she helped organize. This was while she was out on bond awaiting trial.
In the photo, Brittany is wearing a brilliant pink and green top and riding a brown horse through town, her hands confident on the reins. She has her head cocked back and her mouth is open as if laughing, or singing, or calling out for joy.
“It was one of the best days of my life, it really was,” she said.
Brittany holds onto memories like these as she looks ahead to freedom. She’s given a lot of thought to what she’ll do when she is out.
She wants to pick up where she left off with Mixed Sistaz United. The plan is to continue feeding people, registering her neighbors to vote, and working to establish homeless shelters. She has considered becoming a minister. She has written a book titled Radical Transformation to a Revolutionary Journey, and she plans to get it published.
But none of that can start until the state sets her free.
“Free me. Free Brittany Martin. I’ve got a lot to offer, and I don’t plan on wasting my life.”