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.
More than a quarter of blacks live below the poverty line, and mobile access is critical to families who need phone and Internet access to apply for jobs and stay connected to critical social services. Even a $25 increase in monthly phone bills, which would have been likely with the merger, could mean choosing between eating, paying electricity or paying for a phone.
While blocking the merger is a good step in protecting Internet access, the fight to keep the Internet a level playing field has only begun and needs the black community's continued support.
Big telecom and cable companies want to fundamentally change the way the Internet works and our access to it so they can make millions by acting as gatekeepers over what you see and do online. If these companies succeed, a few major corporations will control which voices are heard most easily, and it will be much harder for grassroots groups, individuals, independent media outlets and small businesses to compete with large corporations and well-funded special interests.
When members of ColorOfChange.org first got involved in trying to stop the merger, we heard from most of the establishment that the merger was a done deal because corporations were the ones with the power. The more than 50,000 ColorOfChange.org members who signed a petition to the FCC, and more than 40,000 members who asked their Congress members to oppose the merger, came together to prove the establishment wrong. We need to bring this same tenacity to the fight to protect an open Internet.
The black community has the most effective and powerful history of organizing and activism of any segment of the American population. Our victories in gaining freedoms, rights and respect — which have served as models for the activism of other marginalized communities — have always been dependent on our ability to use the latest technology to share information and communicate with one another.
Open access to the Internet is our modern-day WATS line — our link toone another that needs to be unfiltered and uncorrupted by corporate interests in order to serve the needs of the black community. Like the leaders of the civil rights movement, we are called upon to protect affordable, reliable and open communications to ensure that our voices are heard.
Rashad Robinson is executive director of ColorOfChange.org. With more than 800,000 members, ColorOfChange.org is an online black political organization. He can be found here on Twitter.