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Benjamin Todd Jealous: ‘Du Bois Would Use Digital Media and Mobile Technology to Do What He Did in His Prime’

[I recently asked these four questions. Below is one reply, from Benjamin Todd Jealous. 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]

W.E.B. DuBois was a communicator’s communicator. He was a master of words, but also a master of the medium. The offices of The Crisis were located in the joint home of The Nation magazine and the New York Evening Post. If DuBois were reporting to work today, he would undoubtedly recognize that the center of the media universe has now shifted to our computers and our phones.

I have no doubt that DuBois would use digital media and mobile technology to do what he did in his prime – reach out, inspire, unify and activate members of the black community and people of good conscience of all colors. This has been one of the NAACP’s priorities in recent years, and our web and mobile activists have swelled from 175,000 to 600,000. 

The digital transformation has made the world smaller and divisions more traversable. What was slow is now fast; what was closed is now open and accessible to all. This transformation has made possibilities for social change and movements both greater and closer at hand.
DuBois would have taken advantage of the ability to organize state by state rather than block by block or community by community. Rallies can now be coordinated simultaneously in cities across the country – and across the world. It is significantly more difficult for discrimination or police abuse to be hidden, and once exposed these individual cases have greater potential to be a catalyst for change.

DuBois would also have recognized that adapting to this modern world means meeting people where they are. In a conversation whose pace is set by 140-character missives, symbolism takes on new importance. How many young people became anti-death penalty activists after tweeting out #IAmTroyDavis? How many took another look at racial profiling after seeing their friends dressed in a hoodie and holding a bag of skittles?

The new digital landscape has its pitfalls. Subtlety can be a victim when messages are designed for mass consumption. Also, some people may consider their community service finished when they share a friend’s Facebook status. We must rise to the challenge in the same way that DuBois would have. First, create new activists by reaching them where they are. Next, use the age-old organizing techniques pioneered by DuBois and Walter White – and the wide network of NAACP branches that they helped create – to engage new activists one by one and create a new generation of civil rights leaders.

Finally, DuBois would have been intrigued about the prospect of a 24-hour TV news cycle but disappointed in its current form. More hours of news should translate to deeper coverage of pressing issues around race, poverty and inequality. Yet many cable news channels fill much of their airtime with sensationalism, soft news and surface-level investigations into our nation’s institutional failures, often failing in their duty as the fourth estate. Moreover, there is a severe lack of voices of color in primetime slots or Sunday shows – though Melissa Harris Perry, Roland Martin and Al Sharpton are beginning to fill that gap.

– Benjamin Todd Jealous

Benjamin Todd Jealous is the 17th President and CEO of the NAACP.

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