Reflections on Martin Luther King Day, with a nod to social media

Today we celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was a young child when he was leading change in America, and I’m sorry to say very few people in my family were impressed with him or his message. Perhaps it’s because my parents were older and grew up in a different time. My dad was in a segregated military; my mother grew up in a family where “colored people” were servants. I know my mother died without ever having a meaningful conversation–one between equals–with any African-American person, but she was always kind and polite when she encountered them. She cautioned me that “they are different.” Daddy mellowed in his later years. He loved soul food and had a diverse collection of fishing buddies and fellow woodworking craftsmen that he could hang out with despite Mother’s concerns about what other people would think.

Like many white Americans during the civil rights era, my parents expressed fear. Seeing large crowds of black marchers singing “We Shall Overcome” scared them, and they, like many of their peers, thought that song meant “they” wanted to take over America and marginalize white people. The news media in those days–remember, we were limited to three TV networks, some radio and our daily newspapers–didn’t do a good job of explaining what was going on.  My parents never went to college, so they made their assumptions based on high school educations from small towns in southern Indiana. I’m pretty sure the thought never entered their minds–or that of those teaching them–that all people are truly equal, and no race is superior to any other.
Somehow, despite growing up in a world where the “N” word was freely used, I never understood why “they” were different, other than their appearance. My first questioning of this came in kindergarten. I had a new blue dress with a really pretty front detail that was different and stylish. To this day I remember what that dress looked like, down to the white topstitching and button trim.  The first time I wore it to school there was another girl in my class wearing the same dress. She was African-American and wore her hair in braids with matching blue barrettes.  The teacher had us both stand up in front of class to show off our matching outfits, then we resumed our normal activities.  I remember playing with that girl on the playground during recess. She was really nice and we had fun together in kindergarten.That evening at dinner I related the story to my parents. I remember the sidelong glances at each other, and Mother cautioned me not to get too friendly with her, but nothing much else was said.
The dress disappeared from my closet and I never saw it again.  
When we moved to a small town in Kentucky a few year later the city schools had just been desegregated. My school had their first Black student, a young boy in 2nd or 3rd grade. I overheard the teachers talking in the halls about what to do about him. It was as if he needed special education or something because he wasn’t white. I never understood what the big deal was, but I felt empathy because I was the only Catholic in that school, and the teachers didn’t know what to do with me, either.
Small town America in those days was more isolated than it is now. Limited communications kept ideas concentrated in one geographic area, and didn’t allow for much in the way of additional perspectives. There was no Internet to provide a wide world of ideas. Anybody who was different in any way was viewed suspiciously. I never met a foreign-born person until I was a senior in high school. College exposed me to foreign students and a desire to travel and see what the rest of the world was like, but I never felt like any person of another race or ethnicity was any better or worse than me. Somehow, without being openly defiant, I rebelled against my parents by becoming more open minded. Perhaps it’s because I was bullied and treated badly for being an outsider in a small town, and a Catholic in an environment where we were treated with great suspicion.
In the 1970s Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment and President Richard Nixon endorsed it. It was never ratified by the required 38 states, despite an extension of the deadline, and several states that did ratify it rescinded their ratification. Even though the amendment has been introduced in every session of Congress since 1982, the sad fact is, it will probably never pass. Because the wording is interpreted to include the LGBT community, conservatives are working hard to keep the amendment dead in the water.
Remembering back to the political rhetoric and rumormongering of the ’70s I can only imagine what the ERA ratification process would be like today with the popularity of social media and its ability to spread fear. One of the more sensational arguments against the ERA was a belief that it would make separate men’s and women’s restrooms unconstitutional. I can only imagine how that falsehood and others presented by organizations like Phyllis Schlafly’s  Eagle Forum would go viral and mutate into a constitutional monster that would distract media pundits and politicians from actual governing issues.
All of this reminiscing is a rambling introduction to a great blog I read today from Radian6, a media measurement firm. This blog provides an excellent assessment of how the late Rev. King and his organization might have used social media. It’s also a useful outline of social media strategies that could be employed by any activist organization seeking to make an impression on a wide audience.  I think anybody with an interest in civil rights (or any kind of activism) as well as social media can use it as a guide.