Skip to main content

Martin Luther King, on Twitter and Facebook?

By Robert M. Franklin, Special to CNN
updated 11:30 AM EDT, Thu August 8, 2013
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is pictured here in September 1964.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is pictured here in September 1964.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Robert Franklin: Martin Luther King was an especially skilled communicator
  • Franklin says King would have used social media tools to share his message
  • King reached out, not only through sermons and speeches, but also the media
  • Franklin: King's message would still have broad appeal today

Editor's note: The Rev. Dr. Robert Michael Franklin, Jr. is a Visiting Scholar in Residence at Stanford University's Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. He is president emeritus of Morehouse College, where he served as the 10th president from 2007 to 2012. In January 2014, he becomes director of the religion program at The Chautauqua Institution. Franklin is the author of three books and wrote the foreword to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail," reprinted by Trinity Forum in 2012.

(CNN) -- "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end." - Henry David Thoreau

The March on Washington in 1963 was a day for great speeches. Of course, no one knew that the day would also include one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" oration (actually titled, "Normalcy No More").

In fact, King's adviser and draft speechwriter, Clarence B. Jones, says that with everyone consumed by march logistics, the speech was not their highest priority, and hours before the event while King was considering a theme for his speech he didn't know exactly what he would say. Ah, the triumph of procrastination.

Robert M. Franklin Jr.
Robert M. Franklin Jr.

It was a different time, a time when politicians like JFK and preachers like MLK made efforts to craft big ideas in beautiful language. It was the age of thriving newspapers and bookstores. Back then, audiences listened expectantly for the art of rhetoric. They demanded that speakers respect them enough to put real effort and poetry into their publicly spoken words. And, they listened without the pressure and distraction of multitasking on mobile devices. They listened patiently, even while sweating profusely in the August heat.

What about today, in the age of social media? Would Martin Luther King, Jr. be an active social media communicator? And, a more important question: How well would Martin Luther King, Jr.'s gift for rhetoric translate over social networks?

Opinion: 50 years later, civil rights struggle is far from over

The answer to both questions is positive.

As a public theologian he had an encyclopedic knowledge of political writings and literature. He had an amazing ability to educate, inspire and mobilize people through language and speech. He would have recognized that social media is the public square of the 21st century. A keen communicator could not afford to be silent in this space.

According to King's advisers, Clarence B. Jones and Andrew Young, Martin would have utilized Twitter and other social media. Jones says, "He would be up all hours of the night telling me and Stanley Levison his thoughts and we would have learned to send tweets."

It's worth noting that during the mid-1950s, King (most likely assisted by a staff member) responded to readers' letters in his "Advice for Living" column in Ebony Magazine. He did this in order to communicate with a more diverse audience through popular media. He discontinued the responses after his life became too busy and his doctor recommended a slower pace following his 1958 stabbing.

As a man who both loved people and loved to talk, he would have a large social media footprint.

He would have recognized that social media is the public square of the 21st century.
Robert M. Franklin Jr.

As for the second question, could King be King via Twitter? The real taste test is found in the actual language he used to educate and inspire. And, surprisingly, much of it fits within the most constraining of social media platforms, the 140 character limit of Twitter.

Here's a sample:

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality." 108 characters.

"Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again." (quoting the poet William Cullen Bryant) 42 characters.

"We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice." (paraphrasing abolitionist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker) 93 characters.

Memorial sees first MLK Day
Martin Luther King Jr.'s global impact
How MLK helped explorer deal with racism

"Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream." (from the biblical prophet Amos). 71 characters.

"I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality." 88 characters.

"This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant." 74 characters.

"Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective." 128 characters.

And, "From every mountainside, let freedom ring. And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'" Oops, 470 characters. OK, he'd have to split that one into a quartet of tweets.

King's instincts for youth culture were strong and, if alive today, he would be a prominent commentator with a vast social network of followers and friends. This would be an easy way to engage in meaningful dialogue with millennials and Gen X, particularly important since researchers report that younger people do not attend traditional houses of worship at near the rate of their parents. In fact, we now call them "nones" referring to the fastest growing response to the question of one's religious preference. Probably, they would never hear his sermons from the pulpit, but they would read his tweets and Facebook posts and see his Instagram pics.

For Dr. King, everybody in and nobody out

Seeking to engage youth, he taught a course at Morehouse College to a small group of college students that included former NAACP chairman Julian Bond, he spoke to countless university audiences, and he was famously photographed playing pool on Chicago's west side with "the boys in the hood" -- not to mention the touching photos of him with his own lovely children.

King was determined to remain relevant to a dynamic freedom movement that rode on the backs of students despite the fact that, ultimately, he was bound by conscience to criticize the most militant expressions of that youth culture, largely dominated by Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael of "black power" fame, anti-war hippies, and Huey P. Newton, co-founder and icon of the Black Panther Party. His inner moral compass compelled him to criticize ideologies that encouraged further racial separatism and/or violence.

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen say in a new book, "The New Digital Age," that the Internet is "the largest experiment involving anarchy in history" creating a brave new capacity for free expression and free movement of information. We have seen evidence most recently in Egypt where the Arab Spring was driven by social media but later also led to troubling disruptions to a young, fragile democracy.

King was no fan of anarchy. He was irrevocably committed to nonviolent civil disobedience, and would have taken pains to influence the marketplace of ideas toward greater order, fairness, interdependence and civility.

Our new global connectivity requires an encompassing moral vision of how humans can and should live together. Dr. King understood this and would be an active voice expressing the big ideas of freedom and justice for all, through mellifluous phrases and cadences that would appeal even to hip hop ears.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Franklin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT