When civil rights organizers put together rallies and marches in the 1950s and 1960s, it involved painstaking logistical work. Many African-American homes in the South did not have telephones. Letter writing involved days, even weeks, to reach the intended recipients.
As a result, Black churches played a major role in getting out messages about rallies and protests in the American South in that era. Leafleting was also popular, with organizers of events passing out fliers to passersby in the Black communities of the south. Also, the growing number of Black-owned radio stations in the south also played a significant role in spreading the word.
“But social media in the world of 2012 allows people to organize events in 24 or 48 hours, that would have taken seven days or two weeks during the civil rights era,” said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a professor of African American history at Ohio State University and author of the book Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt.
That has been particularly notable in the events following the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Florida student who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in a suburb of Orlando.
The world of social media has been a major factor in the growth around the country of protests, rallies and church events in the aftermath of the shooting. In some cases, the events have been put together in just a few days, bringing together thousands of participants.
“Without a doubt, the world of social media has been integral in a movement like what we’re seeing with Trayvon,” said Jumaane D. Williams, a city councilman in New York City who spoke at the Million Hoodie March in Manhattan last week at which thousands of people poured into a park.
“I don’t think I knew anything about the event until a day or two before it took place,” Williams said. “But when I got there I was stunned by the thousands of people who came out. And it’s clearly a result of the role of social media.”
Jeffries said that, while the methods of getting news out to potential participants in rallies and protests may have changed, the essence of it has remained the same since the civil rights era.
“These communications are all based on personal relationships,” he said. “During the civil rights era, people spread the word through their relationships at their churches, in their neighborhoods. Dissemination of information was to people you knew.”
He added that the communication using social media is based on the similar ties. “The people who communicate information via Facebook or Twitter also have a relationship of sorts with the people they are connected with,” Jeffries said.
“People are using social media to reach out to people they know, there is a network where people feel a sense of trust,” he added. “And that’s what makes it so effective.”
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