CultureHuman RightsInspiration

The King Of Social Change Communicators

This week, we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for his legendary work as a leader, activist and humanitarian.

King, however, should also be remembered as one of the most effective public interest communicators of our time. Richard Lischer, author of “The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America,” writes, “[King] practiced the creativity of a preacher and a poet. He had the preacher’s (and actor’s and politician’s) knack of translating every stray piece of information into the dramatic communication of ideas. Although he was a shrewd social strategist, his genius was poetic in nature, for he had the prophet’s eye for seeing local injustices in light of transcendent truths.”

King’s success can be seen in his ability to create and deliver messages and organize people to address society’s injustices. Many of his strategies are used today by social change communicators.

One prominent example is the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycotts in 1965 through 1966, which brought King to national attention for the first time. The idea for the boycotts came from Jo Ann Robinson, a leader in Montgomery’s Women’s Political Council. The idea came to her in 1950, and in 1954, she wrote the mayor and hinted that if bus drivers didn’t start to treat black riders differently, black riders would respond with a boycott.

The night Rosa Parks was arrested, Robinson mimeographed more than 50,000 copies of a flier urging blacks riders to stay off the bus. The one-day boycott was so effective that the community voted to extend the boycott and elected the 26-year-old King as their leader.

As the boycott went on, the nonviolent protests paved the way for a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1956 declaring segregation of public buses unconstitutional.

King and the other organizers relied on a strategy key to any successful public interest communication effort: highlighting something morally wrong and then creating a compelling call to action that forces others to take notice. From a tactical perspective, King and his fellow organizers were also wise to use the boycotting technique because of the economic pain it caused the bus company and other businesses in the city. And in an era in which Americans were turning to television for theirs news, the footage of thousands of people walking to work created great visuals that worked well for television.

As an orator, King also left his mark. Few speeches delivered before or since have the extraordinary resonance of his speech on the National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963.

His words that day still soar:

 I say to you today, my friends. And so, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

 I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

 I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

King didn’t have a screen or a powerpoint presentation, but his visual language spoke to American values and history. Science now tells us that our brains retain messages that invoke images and stories that speak to our values and culture.

Over time, King used his understanding of how to gain media coverage to help sway public opinion. Probably the best-recorded examples (and the subjects of an academy award-nominated film) were three marches organized in Selma, Ala., to address voter repression in the South.

The marches from Selma to the state capital in Montgomery took place in March of 1965. Although the first two marches were stopped before reaching Montgomery, the television coverage of Alabama state troopers brutally beating the marchers galvanized the public.

Finally, on March 21, 1965, King and other civil rights leaders led 2,000 people on their third, successful march to Montgomery. This time, the Alabama National Guard, under orders from President Lyndon B. Johnson, protected the protesters.

Over the course of the three marches, black voter disenfranchisement in the South became a topic of national conversation and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed the right to vote for all black Americans, because King was able to connect an abstract topic—disenfranchised black voters—with powerful visuals.

“King was a master manipulator of media,” says civil rights expert Travis Atria, “He was very careful about which causes he put his weight behind, because he knew that Selma wasn’t just Selma… These were chances to communicate the evils of racism and segregation to the entire world. There’s a famous story during the march on Selma where a Life Magazine photographer put down his camera to help a marcher who was being beaten by police. King saw it, took the cameraman aside and told him, ‘Your role is to photograph what is happening to us.’ He knew that a picture in Life Magazine of a black man being beaten by the cops during a peaceful march would do more to help black people than trying to stop the cop in that particular instance. He wasn’t interested in posturing; he was only interested in results.”

King’s effectiveness as a communicator, and that of those with whom he surrounded himself, propelled the civil rights movement forward, and is a potent reminder that even the most seemingly insurmountable problems can be overcome.

Posted: January 19, 2015