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 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT