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January 18, 2010Jake DiMare

DrMartinLutherKingJrSometimes it can be amusing to wonder how historical events might have unfolded differently if modern technology existed then. Since today is the day we observe the life of Martin Luther King Jr. let’s envision the effect on specific events during the Civil Rights Movement.

In a very general way, the Civil Rights Movement would have likely utilized social networking to very positive effect. It seems, the overall egalitarian nature of the world wide web would have been a perfect match for the underlying populism driving the actions in the 50’s and 60’s. One can easily imagine Facebook pages and Twitter accounts for individuals such as Martin Luther King, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcom X and Rosa Parks. Simply put, it would have allowed them to reach even more than the impressive number of people they were able to without.

What would Rosa’s Twitter account have looked like on December 1st, 1955?

@rosaparks: This isn’t even the bus I take to work but this should be interesting #montgomery #bus

@rosaparks: OK, I just refused to move for some cracker so the bus driver refused to drive.

@rosaparks: 5-0 are boarding the bus…see you on the other side!

We would probably know another name much better than Rosa’s had the WWW existed in 1955. Claudette Colvin had done the exact same thing 9 months earlier but Martin Luther King and other leaders decided to look for a better case to fight in court. This was presumably because Claudette was 15 years old at the time of her defiance and might have been seen as more of a petulant child in context. Without the availability of the level playing field offered by blogs and social networks it is up to specific gatekeepers to determine which stories get mass consumption and land on the evening news.

The Birmingham Campaign may have also played out much differently. Because it was difficult for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to enlist enough adult volunteers they decided to use children for ‘sit-ins’ which were a form of civil disobedience intended to interfere with commerce and promote the group’s cause. The Birmingham police actually used high pressure water jets and police dogs against the protesters, including children. Had Facebook Events and Google Calendar existed at the time it might have been much easier to spread the word and get more adults to volunteer.

Like the recent protests in Iran, It is hard to imagine this event would not have seen widespread use of Twitter, Flickr and Youtube. It would have likely created an online firestorm of outrage over the images of police attacking children with dogs and knocking them down with high pressure water jets. At the same time, organizations including the Klu Klux Klan and other hate groups opposing the Civil Rights Movement would have likely enjoyed seeing these events unfold in real time.

By the way, in case anyone doubts whether he would have used the internet, MLK does have a Facebook page today…42 years after his death. No Twitter account could be found. I am shocked somebody hasn’t jumped on that opportunity. 😉

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