In a new story for Wired, Bijan Stephen looks at how the Black Lives Matter movement uses social media to organize and fight for change. As Stephen writes, “any large social movement is shaped by the technology available to it,” tailoring their goals and tactics to the media of their time. For the nascent Black Lives Matter movement, that technology has been platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But civil rights organizers were using technology to mobilize long before the advent of social media. Here’s what that looked like in the Jim Crow South:
In the 1960s, if you were a civil rights worker stationed in the Deep South and you needed to get some urgent news out to the rest of the world—word of a beating or an activist’s arrest or some brewing state of danger—you would likely head straight for a telephone.
From an office or a phone booth in hostile territory, you would place a call to one of the major national civil rights organizations. But you wouldn’t do it by dialing a standard long-distance number. That would involve speaking first to a switchboard operator—who was bound to be white and who might block your call. Instead you’d dial the number for something called a Wide Area Telephone Service, or WATS, line.
Like an 800 line, you could dial a WATS number from anywhere in the region and the call would patch directly through to the business or organization that paid for the line—in this case, say, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
On the other end of the line, another civil rights worker would be ready to take down your report and all the others pouring in from phones scattered across the South. The terse, action-packed write-ups would then be compiled into mimeographed “WATS reports” mailed out to organization leaders, the media, the Justice Department, lawyers, and other friends of the movement across the country.
In other words, it took a lot of infrastructure to live-tweet what was going on in the streets of the Jim Crow South.