In the early ’60s, phone companies like Ma Bell used operators (all of whom were white in the South) to connect our calls. These operators, under the employment of the phone corporations, were reportedly often working with local police or the White Citizens’ Council and were known to block calls or report civil rights organizers’ activities to those working against the civil rights movement.
To combat this problem, the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee — the legendary civil rights group that played a major role in the 1963 March on Washington — installed something called a Wide Area Telephone Service line in their offices. Before the days of 1-800 numbers and direct calling, these WATS lines were not only safer but were much more affordable than traditional phone services.
The WATS line allowed organizers to bypass this interference — which sometimes served as a threat to their safety — and connect with one another directly. The line provided these heroes the connection they needed to record violence and arrests, send doctors and lawyers to help those who needed it and transmit early warnings to activists in danger. Without the telecommunications technology of the WATS line, the fight for our freedom would have been put in further jeopardy by our inability to communicate effectively.
The efforts of the SNCC to provide safe communication offer a stark example of how critical technology is to our ability to organize and make our voices heard. It is a lesson that many activists, including ColorOfChange.org, took to heart when working to prevent the proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile that would have had severe and negative consequences on the black community.
The announcement this month that the proposed merger has been stopped is a significant victory in the effort to ensure that all members of our community have affordable access to phone and Internet services. By blocking the merger, we have kept mobile service affordable during these tough economic times.
T-Mobile plans cost $15 to $50 less per month than comparable plans from AT&T, and these cheaper options would have been cut during the merger. Almost 16 million people of color who are customers would have seen a hike in their phone bills if the merger had gone through.
This lack of competition and price increase would have hurt our ability to organize and participate in democratic forums. The black community, more than any other group in the country, relies on mobile devices for all communications, including activism — from registering voters to organizing a rally. We need the mobile Internet to communicate, without a corporate filter controlling prices and trying to eliminate open Internet rules, in order to have the ability to hold public officials and corporations accountable.