MLK’s Communications Lessons Resonate Today

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As we honor the late Dr. Martin Luther King today, we also note that his remarkable ability to inspire and lead through his words and actions serve as examples for today’s communicators.

The success of the civil rights movement is due, in large part, to the effectiveness of Dr. King and its many other leaders in clearly defining their objectives, audiences and messages and in developing the tactics to deliver those messages to achieve their goals.

This year’s movie, “Selma,” while having some historical inaccuracies, illustrates the communications skills of Dr. King and the civil rights leaders in one tumultuous three-month period in 1965.

The movie portrays one of their many strategies to achieve the long-term objectives of ending segregation and achieving equality. The civil rights leaders in Selma were marching to secure the right to vote for all African Americans so they could change the people in power, especially in the South where racism helped elect and keep some politicians in power, such as then-Gov. George Wallace.

Their audiences were whites and African Americans alike. While some criticized the use of young people and women on the front lines of protests and marches, the images of fire hoses, whips and clubs unleashed on these nonviolent marchers moved the very audiences they were trying to reach. As the movie shows, the brutal attacks spurred white Americans to join the marchers in Selma.

Dr. King viewed his message very simply, saying, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” As the movie shows, his message of love, integration and nonviolent protest provided a powerful and persuasive counterpoint to other civil rights leaders, such as Malcolm X, who advocated for the establishment of a separate black community and the use of violence for self-defense. (The movie also illustrates the importance of Malcolm X’s advocacy in making Dr. King’s message more appealing to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson and other political leaders.)

The civil rights leaders’ tactics were to use words, actions and visibility in the media to change the law. In the movie, they discuss the likelihood of a violent reaction to their peaceful march. The sheriff delivers the reaction they had expected. The media broadcasts the brutality against the marchers around the country, generating the desired backlash against the sheriff and others who had denied African Americans the right to vote.

The marches in Selma spurred President Johnson to sign into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with Dr. King at his side, a law that has been called the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever approved by Congress.

Throughout the civil rights movement, Dr. King and the other leaders knew that the many nonviolent protests they waged would be ineffective if they were not covered by the media. Their effective use of words and actions drove media coverage, and that coverage drove change.

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