Research Overview

My work is devoted to understanding and using storytelling to promote civic engagement and social justice, both in the past and present. I am lucky to work in a department that is committed to leveraging our privilege as faculty members at an urban university to work for social change.

Recent Publications

Two articles resulted from historical research I have done to better understand the evolution of social movement media, particularly “small” or DIY media, in these cases a small newspaper, Free Russia, and a comic book, “Martin Luther King and The Montgomery Story.”

J. Michael Lyons, “An Army Like That of Gideon: Transnational Reform on the Pages of Free Russia.”  American Journalism 32.1 (2015): 2-22.

This article explores how a transnational network of reformers used the short-lived newspaper Free Russia to help sustain a movement to topple Russia’s czarist government in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Prominent American reformers and writers of the era, including Mark Twain and Julia Ward Howe, subscribed and contributed to the newspaper, which was edited by exiled Russian revolutionaries in London. Free Russia helped buoy movement actors and establish a movement narrative, much like 19th Century Abolitionist newspapers. The article also illustrates the international impulses of American and European reformers at the turn of the century, particularly in their efforts to reshape pre-revolutionary Russia.

J. Michael Lyons, “Diffusing Dissent: The Montgomery Story comic and civil disobedience.” Journalism History, 21:2 (Summer, 2015)

The history of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s provides ample opportunity to understand how groups use mass media to build and sustain social movements. This article examines an understudied but important piece of movement literature, the “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story” comic, which simultaneously provided an “origin story” for the modern movement and a step-by-step guide to nonviolent action. Young activists such as Congressman John Lewis, a college student when “The Montgomery Story” was published in 1957, called the comic the “Bible of the movement.” The comic would later surface in South Africa, in Latin America translated into Spanish and, after a translation into Arabic, on Tahrir Square in Egypt in 2011. Through letters and archival documents, the article explores the creation and distribution of the comic and its usefulness as a compact and simplified “movement narrative” that was adapted to use in other social movements.

The article chronicling The Montgomery Story will be included as a chapter in the forthcoming book, Production of Living Legacies: Literary Responses to the Civil Right Movement, published by Routledge. The book is scheduled for release in April 2018, 50 years to the month after the death of Dr. King.

Ongoing Work

Three years ago I began work on The Redemption Project, a digital media project focused on storytelling and advocacy. I co-founded the project with John Pace, Abdul Lateef (formerly Aaron Phillips), and Kempis Songster, three extraordinary men who all served at least 30 years in prison for crimes they committed when they were under the age of 18. Alongside the website and digital storytelling, The Redemption Project is closely tied to educational efforts around mass incarceration, including prison visits by college students and talks and forums.

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