As we pause in remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this the 45th anniversary of his death, we reflect, not only on his soaring oratory or his principled positions, but that he stood as a towering champion for civil rights and social justice for mankind the world over.
He was barely in his mid-twenties when he was swept up by a movement far bigger than his slight frame seemed capable of carrying. Enduring a burden so heavy that it would crush the soul and spirit of most of us, he died as he had lived, fighting for the dignity of the common man.
Now, the movement itself is being forced to accept sweeping change.
A new generation of civil rights leader has emerged who is well versed, skilled, and comfortable in the manipulation of digital and social media, and who are also thoroughly schooled in the lessons of the past.
While some of the central issues may have changed, the need for strong, viable civil rights organizations has never been more urgent. If anything, the cries of injustice have grown louder.
Challenges — ranging from media accountability, human rights, educational equity, economic parity, criminal justice, voting rights, and political responsibility — promise to keep these activists busy far into the future.
Yet, the larger question must be—can traditional organizations like the NAACP, Urban League, SCLC and others continue to be effective in addressing problems in a contemporary framework? Further, what is the role of new media savvy online organizations like Colorofchange.org?
The reality is that Facebook, Twitter, and social media have changed the movement forever.
Indeed, the traditional methods of large scale marches, sit-ins, and protests to capture the nation’s attention surrounding issues of fairness may no longer be enough. Those tactics, while successful in the past, might be quickly giving way to a Tweet or the click of a mouse.
With the success of online organizations like the Colorofchange.org clearly, a new era is dawning in the fight for justice.
Claiming a membership of over 850,000, Colorofchange.org has demonstrated an ability to employ a more nimble, media focused approach.
They scored an impressive win when they mounted a campaign garnering over 40,000 signatures in an effort to cancel a reality based television program that touted a black man with multiple children with multiple “baby mamas.” Under pressure, the Oxygen Network pulled the show from its line up.
Now, the organization has set its sights on the long running program COPS airing on the FOX network.
In a statement to its membership, the organization said that research shows that these images linger in the subconscious of viewers, creating “unconscious attitudes” and “implicit biases” about both race and class, influencing public support for more punitive approaches to problems. Twenty-five years in primetime is enough.
So does this spell doom for the organizations of Dr. King’s era? Not at all, says NAACP president Ben Jealous. “My organization has been fighting these same images successfully ever since the release of ‘The Birth of Nation’ in 1915 that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and cast horrible, demeaning portrayals of black people.”
“We believe in the on-line approach must be coupled with field work-- boots on the ground,” he said. “We have developed a digital media department to augment our current programming to effectively engage the ‘millennial’ generation. Our membership has grown steadily for the past four year as a result of these efforts.”
With more than 172,000 friends on Facebook and over 39,000 followers on Twitter, the NAACP has also realized the power of social media.
On top of an actual membership over a million contributors representing both online and regular donors, and a field presence in about 1,200 communities nationally, the NAACP continues to adapt to the new and rapidly changing environment.
“We welcome the contributions of new organizations like Colorofchange.org we have successfully internalized the lessons of the 21st century. In the end, however, we cannot diminish the importance of field work, phone calls, face to face, and the door to door campaigns that have been the bedrock of our organization for a century.”
For Rashad Robinson, executive director of Colorofchange.org, the goal is to turn moments into movements quickly.
“Our Strategy is based upon insight into the issue at hand, leveraging the research, using social media to elevate the voice of the people,” Robinson said. “We have collaborated with NAACP on a number of campaigns in the past and will continue to do so. We have the utmost respect for their work.”
As a lifetime member of the NAACP, Robinson credits the organization for much of his training.
“Our current campaign to convince the FOX Network to drop COPS secured more than 30,000 signatures upon our first request. We are going directly after their advertisers to convince them that continuing investing in these types of programs are not good for the bottom line.”
Leveraging momentum through social media is now a reality. In the end, however, we may soon find out that a hybrid approach of both old and new methods might prove more useful.
Alfonzo Porter is a contributor to The RootDC and the author of “More Like Barack, Less Like Tupac: Eradicating the Academic Achievement Gap by Countering Decades of the Hip Hop Hoax.” He is a speaker, consultant, former teacher and school administrator.