As the nation prepares to dedicate Dr. Martin Luther King’s National Memorial, let’s give ourselves this thought experiment: “What would Dr. King be doing today if he were armed the social media and telecommunications technology we take for granted?”
As the leading social engineer of the 20th Century, Dr. King understood, as few others did in his time, that technology has intrinsic value only if it is placed in the hands of those who’ll organize for social justice. Listen to his 1964 Nobel Prize acceptance address, entitled The Quest for Peace and Justice, in which Dr. King spoke of the “dazzling picture of modern man’s scientific and technological progress … Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance.”
Dr. King was speaking from unheralded personal experience, for among his many accomplishments was his masterful application of technology to community organizing. During the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference made extraordinarily effective use of 1955’s cutting edge “app” – the telephone tree. Imagine how difficult it would have been to sustain the boycott for more than a year without the landline telephone and the telephone trees they made possible.
Ten years later, when I co-founded the SCLC’s Rochester, NY, youth chapter, I had the great fortune of having SCLC elders teach me how to manage a telephone tree. Each person had ten more people to reach out to, and every person called had a list of ten more people to call and so on for three or four iterations. Everyone’s name was on two call lists to ensure redundancy and enhance turnout. With this tool, most of our 120 youth members could be turned out on 24 hours’ notice.
Now imagine this: what if cell phones, texting, Twitter, and Facebook had been invented and deployed during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott? How would history have been different?
The answer is that history would have happened much faster. Think: if two generations ago we’d had cell phones and the Internet, and universal adoption of them, and universal understanding of what they could do, the moral force of millions of good people would have been awakened and deployed. And because of that, the nation’s conscience would have been energized in Internet time.
We would have witnessed the 1956 Civil Rights Act, the 1957 Voting Rights Act and the 1958 Fair Housing Act – instead of the 1964, 1965 and 1968 Acts of the same names. Half a generation whose lives were diminished or ruined by segregation would have experienced the American dream.
And more than that: America would have won the Cold War 30 years early as emerging nations sought to emulate America’s glowing example of social justice in action.
And even more than that: peaceful mass demonstrations would have begun to supplant war as the method of resolving disputes throughout the world – as is happening now in the Middle East.
Now jump ahead to 2011. We have less than 50 percent minority adoption of broadband at home – about the same as minority telephone adoption in the 1950s. But thanks to its affordability, its thousands of apps, and its mobility, we have almost 90 percent minority adoption of wireless – considerably ahead of the rest of the nation.
That’s impressive, but there’s a long way to go. Majority-minority cities face a spectrum crunch that could inhibit the growth of high-speed wireless. And even medium speed wireless has yet to reach much of rural America.
What new gifts of social justice could we bring about if we had universal broadband and everyone knew how to use it?
Let’s start with the Ban on Racial Profiling Act of 2013 – thanks to cell phone video uploads that snatch the sheet off this insidious practice.
And the No More Consumer Redlining Act of 2014 – thanks to apps allowing consumers to test whether those selling them goods and services charge more, or offer less, to people of color.
And especially the No More Redlining Act of 2015 – thanks to hyperlinked interactive maps showing where banks don’t write loans on reasonable terms, and where insurance companies don’t write policies on any terms.
In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama likened broadband access and adoption to a railway that hasn’t shown up for many Americans. His five-year target for “connecting every corner of America to the digital age … to put high-speed wireless services in reach of virtually every American” is achievable.
Getting there is the Number One civil rights issue of today. Universal broadband access, adoption, and informed use are what define First Class Citizenship in the digital age – with full access to education, to health care, to employment, and to a chance to become an engineer of social justice.
Dr. King – who had mastered telephone trees – would have loved the Internet. He would have used it to hasten our journey to that magnificent place he had seen in 1968 – the place he called The Promised Land.
David Honig is MMTC’s President and Executive Director. He co-founded the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) in 1986. MMTC has represented over 70 minority, civil rights and religious national organizations in selected proceedings before the FCC, and it operates the nation’s only full service, minority owned media and telecom brokerage.