Does 'Marching' Digitally Send A Message?

As thousands of people gathered in the nation's capital to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, many more activists participated online. Host Michel Martin talks about social justice in the digital age with Michael Skolnik of Global Grind and Corey Dade of The Root.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. With 50th anniversary celebrations of the March on Washington this week, we've been talking a lot this week about how different people are trying to reach across racial divisions. Today, to that end, we'll hear from a white woman who decided to confront her own fear of young black men in her own unique way. We'll let her tell you about that. First, though, we want to talk about another aspect of the march that you might not have seen if you were only looking at the people physically gathered on the National Mall.

Now, traditionally, activists have looked at things like crowd counts or how many buses or hotel rooms were rented to gauge the success of a big event, but for all of the tens of thousands of people who attended in person, there were many more participating on social media. To find out more about reactions across the digital world, we're joined now by Corey Dade. He's a contributing editor to TheRoot.com. Also with us, once again, Michael Skolnik. He's editor-in-chief of Global Grind. That's a news and entertainment site with a particular focus on the hip-hop community. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

COREY DADE: Thanks, Michel.

MICHAEL SKOLNIK: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Corey, I'm going to start with you because The Root hosted what it called March on Twitter. What was the idea there?

DADE: That's right. It was a day-long forum. We'd never been - it'd never been tried before, really, by The Root or anyone else. But it was a day-long forum to coincide with the march itself. So as the march continued, as the speeches continued, we kept the forum going and every hour we had a different topic, whether it's voting rights or criminal justice issues etc., all through the day.

MARTIN: Were there any particular themes that you saw emerging yesterday? And what was the participation? Was it around the country, around the world? Were particular parts of the country particularly engaged in this?

DADE: Well, it was worldwide. In total, our forum reached about nearly 2 million - excuse me - nearly 3 million users in the last two hours of the event, when the biggest speakers were speaking on the Lincoln Memorial. We had our #MarchOn reach about more than 6,000 tweets in the last couple of hours. But it was, you know, a lot of the predictable themes I would expect. A lot of the focus was on voting rights. A lot of people looked at this as a suitable commemoration, but they wanted more about kind of next steps. How do we take this movement to the next level for the 21st century?

MARTIN: Michael Skolnik, what about you? You were at the march in person, and you were also - and you attended a number of events throughout the week. I saw you. But you were also dipping in and out of social media, as well. Did you think that the tone was the same? I know we've talked to you about this before because you were also in court during many days of the George Zimmerman trial. And you were in court, and you also were monitoring things being said online. So were the tone of the two the same? Was social media kind of having the same conversations as people were having physically at the march?

SKOLNIK: Well, Michel, that was what was so inspiring and empowering. You know, my friend Corey, from The Root - you know I ran into the publisher of The Root at the White House on Tuesday night, the evening before the march yesterday, and she said, hey, Michael, you know, could you hop on our chat tomorrow on Twitter? And I was like, yes, of course I can hop on. And then at 11:00 a.m. as I walked into the march, there I was on Twitter tweeting at The Root talking about racial profiling, stop-and-frisk and stand your ground laws.

And I think that is what's so amazing about what young people have created online. Certainly, I know you all are going to talk about Miley Cyrus and twerking and the VMAs and what's going on around that, and certainly we can have fun and still talk about issues that are in the pop culture, but we also use this medium to talk about things that really matter to our communities. And I think yesterday was a shining example and not just yesterday - also on Saturday's march was a shining example of how young people can lead and use social media for a powerful tool that it is, not just to communicate with friends, but to communicate with the world that we actually have an opinion, we actually have a voice, we actually have a compassion for the issues that we care about. And we used social media yesterday and the past few days in ways that I think it really should be used for.

MARTIN: Well, let me read this though, you know, Corey, to that end, this is somebody who was participating in The Root's #MarchOn. This is Nicole, she tweets at @iamenough. And here's what she tweeted. She said, quote, no desire to watch @MOW50 because when you're talking about change but cut off the youth, then that's all you're doing - talking.

From what you could gauge - and obviously people, you know, on this don't really know if people are who they say they are, what age they are, what their demographic is, but did you get that sense that a lot of people, younger people, are more likely to have adopted Twitter as they do most sort of technologies, but did you have a sense that they felt not that connected?

DADE: Certainly, and it's interesting you bring that up because I got a call in the middle of the march from the executive - Philip Agnew, the executive director of Dream Defenders - and we know that's the organization - the youth-led organization that did the sit-in, the occupation in the Florida capital, the state capital, in response to the Trayvon Martin - the George Zimmerman trial verdict, and he and another youth leader from United We Stand were bumped off the program yesterday.

They were scheduled to speak, and for time, they were put - they were taken out of the program right before they were supposed to go on. So I actually have a story on The Root this morning talking about it, and Twitter exploded among those two groups' users about them feeling that the irony of this event, supposedly being the torch passing to the next duration, and you don't have two emergent leaders representing that next generation there actually speaking

MARTIN: Which is interesting, though, because one could make an argument that the physical presence at that particular event is less relevant than what they might have been been doing in another venue. But clearly - but they didn't feel that way. They didn't feel that way.

DADE: Yeah, they're not going to be complete discouraged by it, but I think, cere - ceremonial - ceremonially - I'll get that word out eventually - you know, for these young people, they think it's important. If this is a platform to promote civil rights, then they need to be there, then the world needs to see them as a legitimate, functioning organization.

MARTIN: And of course, you know, to that end - and if you're just joining us, we're talking about how the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington played out online. We're talking with The Root's Corey Dade and Michael Skolnik of Global Grind. You know, Michael, to that end, Representative John Lewis was 23 when he addressed the march 50 years ago. He's the sole surviving main speaker, and we talked with him before yesterday's event. I just want to talk play a short clip of our conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: The scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society, whether it is stop-and-frisk in New York or injustice in Trayvon Martin case in Florida, the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, immigrants hiding in fear in the shadow of our society, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger or the renewed struggle for voting rights.

MARTIN: Well, clearly this was from his speech at the event and not from our earlier interview with him. But one of the points he made in our interview that was interesting to me is he said, look, if he, as a 23-year-old then, had had some of the tools that young people have today, he thinks about how much more they could have done if they'd had the kind of technological ability to connect that young people have today. Now he was not criticizing young people, but the implication was that young people, with the tools that they have now, could be actually doing more themselves, Michael Skolnik. And I wonder if you think that's a fair criticism or critique.

SKOLNIK: I think any criticism from John Lewis we should listen to and we should take in. He is an American hero and certainly a hero of mine, and to witness his speech yesterday with my five-month-old son, just so he could absorb the emotion in Mr. Lewis, was remarkable for me as just an American living in this country. But certainly, I think we can always do more. But to Corey's point about Philip and the Dream Defenders and young people being on-stage, now Mrs. Lewis was 23 years old. Dr. King was just 34 years old when he gave that speech.

So I think as our elders look at young people and ask us to do more, let us remember that those who changed this country, those who led that movement, those who were beaten and attacked by dogs and by lynchings and by mobs and by the Klan and by horrible laws - those young men and those young women were just our age, were just Philip Agnew's age or Daniel Maree's age from the Million Hoodies or Mary Pat Hector's age, who's 15 years old, or the kid president who spoke yesterday, who's just a young man. They were young people coming up in this movement, and I certainly - I think that the intergenerational connection between our generation and Mr. Lewis's generation has to be stronger, and the tools that we have now, we have to do better.

We have to use them more responsibly, but I do think yesterday and Saturday we saw a shift of young people actively engaged in the political movement and the social justice movement and using social media in an amazing, amazing way, where all day yesterday and all day Saturday, the trending topics on Twitter, the conversations on Facebook, were about the movement, were about Dr. King, were about John Lewis. And to John Lewis to - you know, right when he left the stage, he tweeted out - the message that he gave to the stage was, if you don't think there's progress, walk in my shoes. He used Twitter to get his message out. So I'm encouraged by his criticism. I know we can do better. I know we must do better. The work continues and I'm certainly humbled to be part of any work that pushes this country forward.

MARTIN: Corey, to that end, you were talking about the fact that a lot of the conversation was exactly what direction ought the - what activism, sentiment ideas, energy stimulated by the march, what direction should it take. The question that some people have is, does typing at a keyboard stimulate the kind of commitment that John Lewis demonstrated by being willing to be beaten to the ground and face death repeatedly in order to advance his agenda at that time? And...

DADE: And that's the discussion that many people are having around this issue. That one of the things John Lewis and other sort of legacy civil rights fighters talk about is the concept of sacrifice. The level of engagement among young people can be higher due to social media, of course, but once you engage them and once you start organizing, it's the level of sacrifice. And one of the key things that makes these movements successful is when young people, basically, turn over their entire lives to a movement. So the question is, can this generation, you know, throw off social media and their other pursuits, careers etc, to make this their lifelong pursuit?

MARTIN: Michael, we only have a minute left. You're both an activist, as well as a kind of a participant in social media. Kind of - you're a curator, as well as an activist. Do you think that that's true? Are you going to see that, people physically engaging or engaging in a way that goes beyond the engagement that's merely comes through social media? And not to diminish it, but what do you think?

SKOLNIK: Yeah, I think one thing we need to remember is that we're now a global community. And I think as the message was presented yesterday - Dr. King's speech resonated, not just in America, but around the world. The young people in Egypt are resonating around the world. The young people in Syria are resonating around the world.

The young people in Iran are resonating around the world. It's not just Americans who are pushing out the message anymore of what social justice movements look like. And certainly those young people in Egypt and Syria and Iran and the Arab spring who did use Twitter and Facebook to organize, but also thousands of them lost their lives. Thousands of them sacrificed - hundreds of thousands of them sacrificed their freedom to go to to Tahrir Square and go petition against their government, ultimately overthrow many of the governments in the Middle East. So I do think that it's not just, we should only look at America, what we are doing.

We are now using Twitter and social media to encourage young people in our country and across the globe to engage with their government, to petition the government, to push the government to do more. So I don't just want to work in the silos in this country. I want to work across the earth and across the globe, and young people in other countries, as well.

MARTIN: Michael Skolnik is editor-in-chief of Global Grind. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Corey Dade is contributing editor for The Root. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Gentlemen, thank you.

DADE: Thank you.

SKOLNIK: Thank you.

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