Understanding How Media Evoke Social Change

“What is the potential of media, digital or otherwise, to affect social change?” asks former Associated Press reporter Mike Lyons, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication studies. This question frames Lyons’ research as he seeks to understand the intersection between civic engagement and digital media.

Lyons discovered this dynamic in Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a 16-page, four-color comic book that tells the story of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott (Dec. 1, 1955 – Dec. 20, 1956) and its nonviolent approach to social change championed by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Originally published in 1957 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international peace organization, the comic book includes King and Rosa Parks as key characters, along with Mahatma Gandhi, who engineered civic engagement as a way to create social change in India ten years prior to the comic book’s release.

In his recent article, “From Alabama to Tahrir Square,” published in Journalism History (2015), Lyons uses The Montgomery Story as an example of how groups use mass media to build and sustain social movements. The article is the first extensive scholarly examination of the comic book.

The Montgomery Story comic, which originally sold for 10 cents, follows a fictional, everyman narrator, Joe, on his journey toward embracing nonviolence despite the surrounding racism. The comic uses a combination of images and minimal text to tackle complex civil rights issues and concludes with a step-by-step guide to peaceful protest and civil disobedience inspired by what came to be known as the Montgomery Method.

According to Lyons’ research, the comic book’s publishers, who had hoped to use the image-driven medium to teach poor, rural African Americans and working class union members about nonviolent social change, did not consider the publication a success. It resonated instead with young activists and college students in both the South and abroad, inspiring leaders in the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa; women’s movements in many different countries, including Chiapas in Mexico; and in Vietnam in reaction to the repression of Buddhists in the early 1960s.

“You need to keep it simple,” Lyons says. “Amplification by simplification is a fundamental tenet of social movement media.”

That is why he says The Montgomery Story still captivates audiences many years later. In 2011, the world followed the Egyptian Revolution in real time using social media platforms for exchanging complex ideas through — once again — simple words and images. At the same time, activist leaders in Cairo’s Tahrir Square were reading an Arabic translation of the comic book.

“Through the use of frugal words and images, comic book writers and artists can quickly guide readers through complicated social issues and emotions,” says Lyons.

In the classroom, Lyons introduces students to The Montgomery Story to illustrate how mass media intersects with civic engagement to impact social issues.

“The challenge is getting students to understand these social justice issues and how media can help address them,” says Lyons. “That’s what the authors who wrote this comic book were trying to figure out.”

One question that guides Lyons’ research and teaching is how to understand what makes a person want to civically engage through media.

“I always tell students that civic media in social movements is about you standing on a curb, and when the protest marchers walk by and you’re watching, to notice what it takes for you to step off the curb and stand in the march with everyone else,” says Lyons. “Media is part of convincing you to do that.”

60 years on: Montgomery Bus Boycott


When Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white passenger 60 years ago on Dec. 1, she had no idea she would one day be known as the “first lady of civil rights.” Her quiet courage sparked a 381-day boycott of segregated buses by African Americans, which eventually led to the U.S. Supreme Court ordering the integration of Montgomery’s bus system. This year, the anniversary of her civic action is being observed in events across the country.