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MLK's View of Why Activists Must Wok to Break Silence
By: Harry Waisbren
While studying Martin Luther King's view of activism, I have come to the firm conclusion that his view regarding the interrelated nature of media and activism is particularly important in these times--especially for our efforts atGet Fisa Right. Writing about GFR's success this past summer,Ari Melberof the Nation described our work as a "large protest on [Obama's] social networking portal". I am not precisely sure of the specifics behind Melber's decision to use this characterization, but in light of his extremely impressive work on the Open for Questions forum onChange.gov--that in many ways parallels our current project withChange.org--I think it is particularly important for him to recognize how his depiction of our work as a protest is, in fact, rooted in the vision MLK had for the future for nonviolent direct action.
King described the rationale behind nonviolence in his famous 1963Letter from Birmingham Jail. He explained that the purpose behind his work precisely to create a "monologue rather than a dialogue" This was because nonviolent direct action was designed to bring hidden societal tensions "out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with". However, as the decade commenced King's capacity to foster such dialogue waned as the media'sopinion of himchanged dramatically for the worse. The situation had become so dire that, as explained in Rick Perlstein'sNixonland, King even feared the prospect of it becoming acceptable to throw civil rights activists into "concentration camps".
This environment provides context for King's 1967 speechBeyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silencethat extends his philosophy of nonviolence. Within the speech King argued that"atime comes when silence is betrayal", and that this dynamic had led patriotic Americans "down thepath of protest and dissent." He now viewed the importance of breaking silence to be so integral that he emphasized the need to "match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible."
The need to "match actions with words" was based on the media environment that prevented a dialogue from being created from a monologue. What those who bash the blogosphere and digital activism do not understand is that this is also precisely this same goal which inspires our work, even if we are unaware of King's call for the populace to speak out in any creative way possible. King came to view words and activism as being directly connected, and he surely would advocate for any effort to reform or bypass the mainstream media in order to create dialogue regarding the hidden societal tensions of which King spoke.
This purpose of media based activism was depicted by our very ownJon Pincuswhen he questioned the ability for "third-parties campaigns and their supporters leverage a social network/blogging campaign to break through the news blackout and get some coverage?" Get Fisa Right was successful at fostering a limited dialogue with thenow president-electregarding his position on FISA. More recently, the massive energy behind Bob Fertik's question onChange.govregarding the necessity for a special prosecutor to investigate torture and warrantless wiretapping also proved successful at creating at least a minimal amount ofdirect dialogue with Obamaover an issue where silence had once again come to reign.
However, the successful examples from GFR's work this summer and the coalition behind Fertik's Change.gov question must be viewed as the beginning points of a larger effort to reform the public discourse within our country. Within his call to break silence, King also discussed how "true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
King may not have directly said it, but part of this "edifice" in need of "restructuring" is our media environment purportedly designed to mediate dialgoue between the people and powerful. We are now faced with the prospect of creating and discovering "every creative method of protest possible" in order to create such an edifice in reality and not in theory, and although we have made much progress, but there is dramatically more work to be done. Fortunately, alongside our successes comes many new efforts to build upon the foundation of dialogue that we have established. This is why I implore anyone who believes in Martin Luther King's dream for America to take part in our most recent efforts to break silence through Get Fisa Right's question on Change.org, and to dedicate their support to "matching actions with words" as King called for us all to do.
Latest page update: made by Hwaisbren
, Jan 12 2009, 3:15 PM EST
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