This website is part of the USC Annenberg Digital Archives. Read More

Lee A. Daniels: ‘A Provocative Claim’ About The Internet and the Civil Rights Movement

[I recently asked these four questions. Below is one reply, from Lee A. Daniels. Please join the conversation either by tweeting @Digital_Du_Bois or by leaving a comment at the bottom of this or any other post on]

I’m reminded of a comment the late John Payton, the director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and one of the greatest civil rights lawyers of our time, made to me in mid-2009 after the visceral nature of the white-racist surge against President Obama had become apparent.

Payton said the quick mobilization and impact of that fervent hatred made it clear that if the Internet had existed in the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement would likely have been defeated.

His point was that – at a time when nearly all Southern whites declared themselves fiercely eternally opposed to Southern blacks’ demands for basic citizenship rights and the overwhelming majority of Northern whites felt blacks were “moving too fast” in seeking them — the Internet’s ability to almost instantaneously transmit information, coagulate the immediate reaction of individuals to that information, and then, transmit that reaction to the world at large (thus drawing an ever-widening circle of people to the event) would have produced the virtual equivalent of the violent white mobs that gathered in Montgomery and Birmingham, and hundreds of Southern cities and towns during the Movement days.

That dynamic, he suggested, would have overwhelmed the patient, disciplined, self-sacrificing effort the Movement had to forge to turn just a minority of the country’s white citizenry against the continuation of White Supremacy.   

It was a provocative claim, as Payton well knew, and well worth considering, not least for the counter-argument to it, which, unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to discuss.

The counter-argument goes something like this: The claim doesn’t ring true because, Payton would be the first to agree, you can’t “take” the only Internet out of the present and put it in the past. You’d have to take almost everything else that surrounds, so to speak, the Internet, too. That would include the American society that we have now – and that is an American
society vastly different in many respects from the one that existed before 1965.

I’ll mention just one point of difference – the major one, in my view. That is that the American society of today is not a black-white society, as it was then but a multicultural one. It is one in which the mosaic of Americans of color, and gays and lesbians, and “uppity” white women – just by their determination to be themselves, whatever they think that means — have provoked a racist surge among the minority of whites who remain committed to a nation ruled by a white-supremacist code and are driven to act out their racist impulses.

The difference between the American society of today and that of the early 1960s has given the dwindling segment of white-racist America many new targets for their venom. Given that bigots don’t hate just one group; they hate and will attack every other group that’s “different” once they perceive it to be a threat, the bigots, and their political arm, the Republican Party, have in the past decade opened a front against multiple groups of Americans. That has had the effect of shaping the sometimes-quiescent, sometimes-highly active multicultural progressive coalition – which, of course, includes many whites who recoil at acts of white racism in the society — that pulls the voting lever for the Democratic Party.  

Payton also omitted, for the purpose of being provocative, acknowledging that those on the right side of the social justice issue are now, if they weren’t before, as skilled as the racist/conservative forces in utilizing the Internet to argue their side of the issues and mobilize public opinion.

So, in fact, one has to conclude that if the Internet were to have existed in that America, the outcome would have been the same: the decent people – who in those years battled an opposition that at the time seemingly controlled almost all the society’s levers of power — would still have won.

Just as the forces of right are going to win the current battle – the battle of the color line of the 21st century. Du Bois would surely remind us that “the problem” is still with us, having expanded its boundaries to include the class line and the cultural line, too.

He would be tremendously excited by the evidence that the Internet can be a mechanism for transmitting information and “propaganda” that helps Americans understand, as has become more apparent during this decade, that problems labeled “black problems” in order to let them fester, are actually problems that other Americans are facing or will soon face.

He would say, having loosened up enough to appreciate the words of Marvin Gaye, “Let’s get it on!”

– Lee A. Daniels

Lee A. Daniels is the author of, “Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.” He has served as Director of Communications at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, as a reporter for The New York Times and Washington Post, and as editor of the National Urban League journal, The State of Black America.

Speak Your Mind