Martin Luther King, Jr. and Civil Movements in the Age of Social Media

From the article, #Riot: Self-Organized, Hyper-Networked Revolts—Coming to a City Near You:

We declare the obsolescence of “bricks and mortar,” but let’s be honest: What we usually want to avoid is the flesh and blood, the unpleasant waits and stares and sweat entailed in vying against other bodies in the same place, at the same time, in pursuit of the same resources. And yet: On those rare occasions when we want to form a crowd, our tech can work a strange, dark magic.

Given recent events in our society, including the Egyptian uprisings, the international Occupy movement, and the UK riots, social media — and technology in general — have played a pivotal role in organizing and communicating. Arguments have been made that the breadth of the Egyptian protests — composed mostly of Egypt’s youth population — was made possible largely by social technologies including Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. The Occupy movement relies heavily on the capabilities of social media technologies to coordinate its activities and maintain a constant flow of up-to-the minute information for all the world to see.

But what of civil movements before the age social media? Take for example, the “We Shall Overcome” speech made by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on March 31, 1968:

His speech itself takes inspiration from the original gospel work, “I’ll Overcome Someday” by African-American composer Charles Albert Tindley.

From Women’s Suffrage and Million Man Marches, organizing civil movements has been historically an analogue endeavor, including sit-ins, public speeches and demonstrations, distribution of leaflets, and media broadcasts, not to mention the many, many phone calls, letters, and face-to-face meetings required to get organized. Today, civil movements take advantage of all the analogue elements, of course, but they also occur virtually through technologies like social media and the Internet. Making something happen can be as simple as creating a hashtag and sending a mass tweet.

You know the revolution has been digitized when hashtags get involved. (source)

Unfortunately, as in the past, many civil movements today are met with police and military actions. Complicating matters is that the use of technologies in modern civil movements often prompts a response (whether good or bad) from governments: whether enabling the protesters by actually providing technologies or outright blocking the use of technology as a way to quell the protesters’ actions.

Check out this video of news coverage discussing the impact of social technologies during the Egyptian revolution.

How Twitter and Google Impact the Egypt Crisis


Discussion Prompt

What if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had in his time the technologies we take for granted today? How might he and his audience shared and discussed his “We Shall Overcome” speech? What are some examples of how he might have used modern technologies to organize and communicate? Overall, how might our modern technologies have affected the 1960s Civil Rights Movement? How do you feel about the potential blocking of technologies used by protesters today?


4 Responses to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Civil Movements in the Age of Social Media

  1. Rose Muniz says:

    Yes! I agree because my naked eye can see that social media has assisted the recent international protests and I must say it is about time. Technology helps spread these messages much faster and more accurately and it is a thrill to see the physical change happen in my own generation. Television and radio was the most important pivotal role during the civil rights movement in deed! It was bound to happen again. I support Mar Zuckerburg’s attempt to connect the world by including Korea in his social network. I hope I live to see the day where we could connect with the 1 billion Korean/Asian population that is cut off from the world and living in isolation from such social technology.

  2. Timothy Mitchell says:

    I would have to say the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s would have progressed much faster than it did. People would have had better accessibility to civil rights speeches led by leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. However, the use of our technology back then could have also decreased the number of people who attend these speeches, because people might have thought that just following them on twitter was enough support.

    • stem110t says:

      “because people might have thought that just following them on twitter was enough support.”

      You captured that precisely. Along the same idea you have, see this post:

      “Social media must work hand-in-hand with an ability to mobilize citizens. It is far too easy to simply “Friend” or “Like” a movement on Facebook and a retweet is never enough. The challenge is to put boots on the street, as protesters in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya know only too well.”

  3. slaur004 says:

    I agree with the other posts that had the 1960’s developed the technology we have today, the Civil Rights Movement would have progressed much faster. I also think that if Twitter and YouTube had been available to the mass public back then, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches could have reached a bigger and broader audience. The Civil Rights Movement could have been progressing simultaneously in more than one area of the United States. Dr. King’s motivational efforts in the movement could have inspired others out west and in other countries around the world to end segregation and start reaching for equality. Maybe places like Pakistan and Afghanistan would have heard the speeches and started a movement in their countries concerning the equal rights of women starting in the 60’s.

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