If Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, what would he tweet? Would he be engaging trolls in twitter battles, would he be following Kim Kardashian, would he be retweeting inspirational quotes, and reposting the latest memes? Uh, probably. l have a funny feeling that he would be addicted to social media because he was a really cool, fun, young-spirited man who loved to engage people. He was one of the youngest people in his class at Morehouse, he was a chainsmoker, he loved Star Trek, he liked pool, and enjoyed music. However, there is at least one aspect of social media and pop culture that we would not be engaged in–cynicism.
Before I get to that, I thought it would be fun to “hack” King’s Twitter account from 1964, to see what he had to say. The closest thing to Twitter they had in the 1960s was a Western Union Telegram–kind of like reading tweets on paper the color of the Kelvin Instragram filter. Malcolm X sent his “frenemy” MLK @yungking a message on Tuesday, June 30, 1964 that offered Dr. King assistance after the Ku Klux Klan had done a drive-by shooting on non-violent protestors in St. Augustine. #tryme
A month before he was killed, King sent a telegram commending Cesar Chavez for his personal sacrifice and commitment to the use of nonviolence in union strikes. Cesar Chavez, was the Mexican American leader of migrant and immigrant farmworkers in California. He had organized a strike and a 25-day fast to protest the unjust working conditions and treatment of workers. #hungryforjustice
When a bootlegger released a mixtape of King’s draft of what came to be the “I Have A Dream” speech, King took him to court and sued to have the proceeds directly benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Berry Gordy, that generation’s equivalent of Kanye West, telegraphed King and stated that he would be willing produce the album at Motown and even lose money on the project if it would help the cause. #2woke2bebroke
King’s telegrams reveal the impact of his social media messaging. King used his platform in the church, on the streets, and in the world to build up people and to advance justice, never to tear down or demean his enemies. King reminded us so eloquently in hundreds of sermons and speeches that our response to the world should be one based in positive change rather than cynicism. Speaking to high school students in Philadelphia in 1967 a speech entitled “What is Your Life’s Blueprint,” King said, “[Y]our life’s blueprint, must be a commitment to the eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice. Don’t allow anybody to pull you so low as to make you hate them. Don’t allow anybody to cause you to lose your self-respect to the point that you do not struggle for justice. However young you are, you have a responsibility to seek to make life better for everybody and so you must be involved in the struggle for freedom.”
For every one person who is using social media to organize, speak truth to power today, five people are using it for snark, harassment, cyberbullying, or hate speech. Millions are using social media to hide behind an anonymizing wall of cynicism. Cynicism is a belief that people are purely self-interested and one should be dismissive of any solutions that require community. Similarly, apathy is a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern. As some have written and King declared, it is apathy, not hate, that is the opposite of love. The greatest enemies of our nation are not the proponents of racial violence, the homophobe hurling slurs, or the xenophobe spitting insults at immigrants. Rather the greatest enemy of a “beloved community” are indifferent and uninterested individuals, too jaded by cynicism to commit to any lasting vision of change. Far too often our social media has made us anti-social, less invested in the principles that King urged us to uphold. That cynicism has made us far too apathetic and detached. Speaking of these followers King once said: “Detachment is the word which best describes them. Too unconcerned to love and too passionless to hate, too detached to be selfish and too lifeless to be unselfish, too indifferent to experience joy and too cold to experience sorrow, they are neither dead nor alive; they merely exist.”
A young college student named Barbara Jones Omolade, felt the pain of this detachment and recognized those same tendencies in her generation. She was a young woman enrolled in college in 1964 like many of you today. Her parents expected her to land a quiet job teaching in New York but she had other plans that left her father stone faced in silence and her mother weeping at the kitchen table. She came to Atlanta to work in the movement. What would you do if you defied your parents? She sent a snap (letter) to her parents:
Dear Mommy and Daddy,I decided to work for SNCC…Last summer, I used to watch civil rights demonstrators in Greenwood, Mississippi, on television. I used to cry because I know I should be there. But I also cried because I was relieved to find people trying to change what I thought was unchangeable….You see I thought that the people in those demonstrations on television were extraordinary people like Martin Luther King Jr. but they are ordinary college kids and old people.Yes, Daddy, I am brainwashed like you said; brainwashed by the fact that I’m black and I have nothing to lose in this fight against the chains that bound me and my people. Going to college, living in a comfortable house, having clothes, even being able to get a job in New York is not going to change the fact that I’m a black girl in a white man’s country and I have nothing to lose by fighting racism. Sure I can teach in New York, but that isn’t enough. The system is corrupt all over. It shortchanges the Negro and Puerto Rican kids and provides better schooling for the white kids. If I taught I could change one school, one classroom. But in the movement I can help bring about more basic changes which can allow me to go back to the South that I love and live there with my friends, white and black, building a new world and living a life with meaning…this is what I went to college for…I was a history major because I wanted to make as well as teach history.Barbara Jones Omolade’s letter reminds us that the successes of King were built by the scaffolding of thousands of people who were LinkedIn into a network of hope, who refused to settle for cynicism. Who refused to allow their towns, their schools, their colleges and universities, their government settle for the narrow-minded interest of the status quo. The women, the deacons, the disabled, the timid, the outcasts, the poor, those with unpopular views that had made them outcasts in their own communities participated in a national hackathon for justice and the world has never been the same.Barbara Jones Omolade, “Building a New World” in Hands on the Freedom Plow, p.388-392.
So today I have a tweet! Martin Luther King’s tweet for America in 140 characters: “Not the media or man that makes a movement but the message of the messengers, not the number of characters but the content of character. #mlk