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Home | Religion and Media | Media and Movement Building:The Five Best Strategies of the Last Fifty YearsA Report for Auburn Media
Media and Movement Building:
The Five Best Strategies
of the Last Fifty Years
A Report for Auburn Media
By Paul VanDeCarr
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CASE STUDY 1
CASE STUDY 2
CASE STUDY 3
CASE STUDY 4
CASE STUDY 5
Leadership. Leaders help articulate the basic ideas that a movement communicates. A leader envisions the future, writes books, does public speaking, and inspires others to act. In this way, leadership and communications are closely interrelated functions. Here, we look at the relationship of leader and movement in the Civil Rights Movement. The question arises: Do we need leaders, and how do we cultivate them?
Institutions. Institutions—publishing houses, think tanks, radio and TV stations, and more—help ensure the long-term success of a movement’s communications. In this case, we look at how the Christian Right of the late 20th century inherited and expanded an institutional infrastructure that transcends election seasons. This case poses the question: Does institution-building strengthen a movement, or make it calcify?
Tactics. Shocking graphics and militant tactics may help some groups communicate about their cause. Here, we look at the tactics, successes, and failures of ACT UP and Operation Rescue, two organizations that were founded in response to what they saw as emergencies. Some say these groups mobilized activists, while others say they alienated moderates. The question comes up: How valuable is shock value nowadays?
Media. Social media has emerged as a key tool for keeping in touch with friends, finding a job, and now, organizing a political campaign. The Obama campaign used social media to enable supporters to communicate with each other and elect their candidate. This strategy was consistent with the campaign’s populist message that “we are the change we seek.” A key question is: How can we most effectively use social media for a cause?
Each one of these campaigns and movements made moral, ethical, or sometimes outwardly religious claims—about God-given rights, violations of scripture, sin and “blood guilt,” and religiously inspired principles of justice. The lessons of these campaigns and movements suggest that communications is not just about crafting the “perfect” message that will magically persuade even the staunchest opponents to convert. Nor is it something one does only at the end of an organizing effort, such as issuing a press release about a rally the day beforehand. Instead, communications is itself a kind of organizing. It’s an ongoing and grassroots effort to communicate with people of all sorts to enlist, persuade, inform, envision, rally, and, finally, effect change. We hope this study will be useful in the efforts of the many committed activists fighting for the full equality of all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
CASE STUDY 1
The Call: The Montgomery Bus Boycott
It was not the only call he would get. Once the boycott got fully underway, King received phone calls, sometimes as many as 40 a day, threatening his life, and that of his wife and newborn child. (Garrow, 57) After one such call, King went to his kitchen, made some coffee, and as he recalled years later, “with my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.” (Garrow 56) Then, sometime around midnight, yet another caller told him, “Nigger, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out, and blow up your house.” (Garrow, 57-58) He was deeply shaken, and sat in his kitchen, where he prayed out loud. “I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.’ … And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ … I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on.” King reported, “Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.” (Garrow, 58) Three days later, his house was bombed, though no one was hurt. (Garrow, 59) King had been called to leadership by members of his community, and he drew on the strength that God and his community gave him to serve as a leader—though not the only one—through the 382 days of the bus boycott. On December 18, 1956 the city buses had full and integrated service. (Garrow, 82)
Student Power: The Sit-Ins and Freedom Rides
SNCC activists were a key part of another major civil rights initiative. In May of 1961, The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sponsored the first “Freedom Ride,” in which Black and white activists rode via bus from Washington, DC to New Orleans to “challenge … every form of segregation” that passengers faced. (Garrow, 154) After the first two buses were attacked and riders were beaten, the remaining Freedom Riders flew to New Orleans to end their trip. But two young riders rallied SNCC activists to take another ride from Nashville to Birmingham. That ride was attacked by a mob in Montgomery. (Garrow, 156-157) Together, these rides—and the press attention they drew, thanks to the strategic “crises” that were created—were essential in successfully pressuring the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue an order desegregating all interstate transportation facilities, effective November 1, 1961. (Garrow, 167)
“The student movement had … thrust King to new prominence as the principal symbol of the southern movement,” writes David J. Garrow. (Garrow, 171) King’s fame rankled SNCC activists who felt they had done the bulk of the work to effect change; further, they felt that King’s SCLC was taking more credit than was due in its lucrative direct-mail fundraising appeals to Northerners. The student leaders successfully pressured King’s SCLC to give SNCC a larger share of funds raised. (Garrow, 166-167) Here again, the relationship of King to student activists was give-and-take, if sometimes unequal. King brought a strong moral voice and national attention to students’ efforts. And they challenged him to provide financial and institutional support for what they saw as the real grassroots work that had to be done.
Grassroots Protests: The Albany Movement
King responded to their call, and they responded to his: “Don’t stop now. Keep moving. Don’t get weary. We will wear them down with our capacity to suffer,” King told the largest-yet Albany Movement gathering, on December 15. (Carson, 60) When negotiations broke down the next day, King led a march to City Hall, and was arrested along with over 250 other demonstrators. City officials refused to desegregate the bus service, prompting a Black boycott in the first part of 1962. SNCC tried direct action to revive the movement, but received little attention for it. (Carson, 60) It was only King’s reappearance in town that spring that re-energized the movement, but he left soon after.
King brought attention to Albany, but in such a way that frustrated student activists. As Michael Eric Dyson writes, “What angered many SNCC organizers is that when King held a press conference after being released from jail, he excluded SNCC from the proceedings, a move that further alienated them from his leadership and created even more resentment of King’s camera-hogging strategy of social change. As one SNCC organizer, Cordell Reagon, put it, ‘I don’t think that anybody appreciates going to jail, getting their balls busted day in and day out, and then you don’t even get to speak on it.’” (Dyson, 297)
Frustrating as it may have been, SNCC’s ultimate concern was not so much to get on camera. SNCC activist Julian Bond said that when his group left an area, it left “a community movement with local leadership, not a new branch of SNCC.” (Carson, 62) For the student organization, this stood in contrast to SCLC, which seemed to gobble up resources and press attention, but failed to foster grassroots leadership at the local level. “SNCC’s organizing efforts suggested a framework for understanding the black struggle of the 1960s not as an operation initiated and directed by leaders such as Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, but as a mass movement that produced its own leaders and ideas,” writes Clayborne Carson. (Carson, 4)
King’s Vision: Writings and Speeches
Other speeches would also cast forward into the future. In a 1965 speech to protestors in Selma, Alabama seeking voting rights, King asked rhetorically how long it would take for justice to arrive, and his stirring refrain was “How long? Not long” (Full speech here.) And in his 1967 address to the SCLC convention, he asked “Where do we go from here?” and provided an eloquent vision to answer his own question. And even in his famous final speech, on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, the night before he was killed, King said, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
The visions that King articulated served the movement. As Clayborne Carson says in an interview, there are pros and cons of having a charismatic leader like King. “Before and after Martin Luther King comes to town, you have local leaders [who may not be so charismatic], but if the people in that town really want to see MLK, and they’re really disappointed when he goes, then you have that sense of deflation afterwards. The local people have to pick up the pieces. It was fine when he was there, but there’s that tendency to say that it’s essential that he’s there. But when he leaves, people feel let down.” On the other hand, Carson says of a later SNCC leader, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), “when he’d go out organizing in Mississippi, people would ask him, ‘are you one of Dr. King’s men?’ And he would say, ‘yes, ma’am, I am.’ MLK wasn’t going to come knocking on their door, but Stokely Carmichael, here I am. That’s the way many SNCC workers looked at it. They could come behind the charismatic leader and take the energy [he] created and turn it into real organizing.” It wasn’t just King’s energy, but his vision, that they were turning into organizing.
Making Everyday Leaders
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION