Opinion | Social media ruined Martin Luther King Jr. Day

By Ebonee Rice, Staff Columnist

The brilliant thing about social media is that it gives everyone a platform. But this also means that everything posted and shared becomes a performance — including social activism — and no day displays this problem more than Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

I realize that social media has become crucial to modern activism through its ability to inform and organize groups across distance and time. However, social media has allowed passive activism to become the new normal. Users are able to post quotes, videos and images of political and social events that instill the feeling of making a change without ever having to get off their couch.

Social media allows people to cultivate the image of a social activist without doing the actual activism. Users can meld their Instagram feed to scream “I CARE MORE AND AM DOING MORE.” They follow the newest protest pages and share the newest social issue. Some do it in an attempt to be on-trend, others feel bad if they don’t. Some even post purely because everyone else is, but the problem is this removes the subjects being posted about from reality — thus reducing them to a social media trend.

This past Martin Luther King Jr. Day, after minutes of scrolling through fun, artsy MLK quotes — quotes written while he was held in a jail cell for anti-segregation protests — I got the same feeling I did during blackout Tuesday, when America decided that the obvious answer to the horrific murder of George Floyd was posting a sea of black boxes across social media platforms as a show of solidarity.

Now don’t get me wrong — I posted my little black box and I truly believed I achieved something, as I’m sure everyone did. The issue is, the day afterward, I found those black boxes several of my friends posted were gone. They deleted their posts and forgot the meaning along with it as they moved on with their lives, content with their singular day of solidarity. The same thing happens every year on MLK Day.

MLK Day has become a contest of “who really knew him best.” Social media gives people the ability to post without taking action, so users can post more — and they love to post more. Posting an Instagram story of 16 images of MLK does not mean that you are a better social activist. It just means you post more infographics. Posting King’s most niche writings also doesn’t equate to genuine activism. MLK Day is not a contest of who is the better social activist, especially when most people aren’t willing to do genuine social activism.

What is even worse is that this performative activism has caused people to quote MLK completely out of context. I vividly remember MLK Day two years back. That day, my conservative-leaning friends plastered MLK quotes all over their social media. For them these quotes allowed them to criticize the riots taking place after George Floyd’s murder behind the words of MLK.

At the same time, left moderates spam their timelines with MLK’s quotes from “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” such as “the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” They purposely ignore that the rest of the letter directly describes them to a T. People from anywhere on the political spectrum are guilty of using social media to label themselves an activist all the while fully ignoring what MLK was trying to convey.

This is not me shouting from a soapbox — I’m guilty of all these things. I’ve done the posting, spamming and sharing viral tweets without ever moving from my couch. I am still not an active social activist. I skip the organization meetings, and I don’t always donate when I could. It’s difficult, always having the energy.

However, I have stopped posting. I didn’t post for this past MLK Day because I felt shameful posting without contributing to his dream. I didn’t share an image or a quote just to make myself look good or to let others know that I care about the day. Because it isn’t about me.

MLK was an anti-capitalist, anti-establishment revolutionary and while his protests were non-violent, they were considered radical for that period. He was purely a man of action. He was on the streets marching, hand in hand with those who believed in the same thing he did — that revolution was possible — and he was willing to sacrifice anything, even his own life. To post his words and then do nothing more is an insult to everything he stood for.

So when those who post MLK’s image do nothing more than post, they strip away the meaning of the words. It makes the man into a figurehead, not a man who marched.

Ebonee Rice writes primarily about political, social, and cultural issues. Write to her at [email protected].