Written for AFROAM 236: History of the Civil Rights Movement, taught by Cécile Yézou
25 April, 2021
Mid-20th Century Communication Technologies: Weapons of Resistance
Cybernetics as a field, as developed most notably by Norbert Wiener in the 1940s, is the
study of communication and control; the cybernetic era that arose from that period is one defined by its technological development in the realm of communication. The site of development of many technologies is often situated in wartime activities, WWII being the prime example here. But as the communications technologies industry swelled throughout the mid-20th century, policing, with its militaristic ties, was a similarly potent locus of these advances. As one might imagine, the history of these developments is as complexly networked as the technologies themselves. What follows is an exploration of this network, focusing on communication technologies of the civil rights movement; police radio systems and the 911 line are the most obvious examples. But where there is repression, there is resistance. More important here is ways that these technologies or similar ones were used by movement activists to further the Black liberation struggle. While the police had their mobile radio communication systems, civil rights groups used citizen band (CB) radio for two-way communications; when the police took up the centralized 911 line in 1968, southern civil rights groups had long been using Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS) to streamline emergency responses. Lastly, Black-oriented entertainment radio, particularly in Birmingham, AL, was used for city-wide coded messaging keeping protestors one step ahead of the police.
There's a common narrative, dare I say dangerous narrative, that power purely refers to domination and repression. Foucault, a leading scholar in the study of power, has often been cited to give credence to this point. But this is a grave misinterpretation. Heller describes how "most Foucault scholars have been unable to free themselves from the conceptual paradigms of conventional social theory (mainstream or Marxist), which has always equated power with 'repression' and has thus always viewed the exercise of power, regardless of its purpose, as inherently repressive" (83). Rather, "power is, for Foucault, neither inherently positive nor inherently negative-- power is simply the ability to create social change" (Heller 87). Extending this, the technology (old and new) that is always a conduit of power is not merely oppressive. It also can not be classified as inherently positive or negative; rather it is a set of tools that can be used to create social change.
In this paper I argue that communications technologies of the mid-20th century were used simultaneously to monitor and police the civil rights movement as well as strengthen the cause and greater protect organizers. This contrasts the view that technology is necessarily repressive, and goes to show that power is not a one way street: the Black freedom movement reclaimed and repurposed tools wielded against it as a source of its own power.
I'll begin with the earliest development in this set of notable technologies: police radio. In 1921, Detroit Police Department member W.P. Rutledge learns from his radio technician nephew that technology at that point was capable of transmitting from a fixed point to a moving point. This sparked the idea that radio could be used for communication as police officers patrol the city (Poli 193). By 1923 Detroit had a license to operate on KOP-- though the system was not without flaws. Because the Federal Radio Commission (before radio came under control of the FCC) mandated broadcasts have an entertainment feature, personnel had to broadcast Yankee Doodle before any call (Poli 194). By 1928 this ridiculous practice came to an end. In 1929 short-wave radio came into use, localizing the broadcast slightly and making it more challenging for citizens to listen in. Still, this technology was highly underused. In 1931 only four police departments in the country were using radio. By 1937 though, popularity had skyrocketed: there were approximately two thousand agencies using radio for communication (Poli 194). By 1940 departments in the Bay Area began experimenting with handheld radios, a technology far more efficient than sirens, lights, bells, horns, and the whacking of batons on the sidewalk (Poli 195). As we know, this technology has not gone anywhere since the above cited historical overview was written in 1942, in fact it is ubiquitous in United States police departments.
In contemporary times, this publicly available technology is able to be utilized for anti-racist protests. During the 2020 uprisings following the murder of George Floyd by ex-officer Derek Chauvin protestors monitored the NYPD radio and alerted people in the streets of the whereabouts of police, what formations they were in, and what tactics and weapons they were using (Kimball). Hence, even now what we consider a somewhat old, low-tech system is important in the fight for Black lives.
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, activists and white supremacists alike had their own localized radio communication systems. Citizens band (CB) radio was first offered in 1948, and by 1958 twenty three channels were specifically set aside for it. It was capable of mobile-to-base as well as mobile-to-mobile communication, and was widely accessible to amateurs. Initially the technology was utilized by the Ku Klux Klan beginning in 1961, when the FCC granted Imperial Wizard Robert Sheldon an operating license (Pearson). A 1965 Washington Post article describes how "the Klan has grown, modernized, even automated. Terror no longer depends on men who ride in the night, but on short-wave radios, walkie-talkies" (Pearson). It goes on to elaborate that "if a civil rights demonstration is about to be held at one Alabama city, or Negroes are going to line up at another town to vote, the Klan can quickly mobilize its forces at that place" (Pearson). The communication capacity afforded by CB radio enabled racial violence to be enacted more precisely and in more organized ways.
Following the KKK's use, Art M. Blake in "Audible Citizenship and Audiomobility: Race, Technology, and CB Radio" argues that "black CB use first developed in direct response to the racial politics of the postwar period, in particular, the years of struggle for meaningful desegregation and full citizenship" (531). Civil rights organizers took up the technology as a direct means of resistance to violence. The Deacons for Defense and Justice, founded in 1964, used CB to respond to threats to CORE workers in Jonesboro, LA. A New York Times article from 1965 writes that if racist "troublemakers" were to make an appearance at the CORE office, "several dozen Deacons would have been expected to arrive at the CORE office within minutes, carrying guns and portable citizens-band radios" (Powledge). Just as CB enabled the Klan to more effectively mobilize its members, it afforded the Civil Rights movement the same resource.
As shown above, two-way radio technologies were an important tool for organizational functioning of police, Klansmen, and Black activists, albeit to extremely different ends. For police and the Klan the devices increased their capacity for violence against Black individuals and groups. But, as always, those Black individuals were not (and still are not) merely victims of racializing technology. Two-way radio communications were reclaimed by organizers for the defense of Black life, serving the interests of the civil rights movement.
Another set of technologies that can be compared in an analogous way are the invention of the 911 line and Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS). What's now known as 911 was called for by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) in 1957, but it wasn't until approximately ten years later that the Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice under Lyndon B. Johnson issued its report recommending a national emergency number be established (Abate). The desire was to streamline emergency response systems. Prior to 911, individuals had to call the police department, the hospital, or the fire department separately, or call up an operator to connect them to a department. By establishing a national emergency number, controlled independently by various locales across the country, individuals could bypass this somewhat arduous process and connect directly with all emergency services. On February 16, 1968 the first 911 call was placed in Haleyville, Alabama. Interestingly, in attendance of this historic call was Eugene "Bull" Connor, the vicious Commissioner of Public Safety of Birmingham, Alabama during the Freedom Rides, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Birmingham Campaign, and the Children's Crusade (Abate). It's no surprise that this vehement opponent of civil rights had interest in streamlining policing communication processes.
But long before the development of 911, civil rights organizations in the south had set up their own centralized telephone service. The archive of the SNCC, COFO, CORE, and SCLC's Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS) reports spans from 1963-1966. WATS is essentially the predecessor to 1-800 numbers: by dialing an organization's WATS line from anywhere in the region, you would be connected directly to one of the phones of an organization, rather than having to place a long-distance call (Stephen). It also circumvented switchboard operators, who were often hostile to the movement and would either intentionally drop calls or report the contents of calls to the police or Klan (Browne). Regardless, it was understood that the WATS lines were "tapped and bugged by every law enforcement agency from the FBI down to the local beat constable. And anything said over the WATS line was passed on by the cops to the Klan and White Citizens Council" ("WATS & Incident Reports"). At the very least, this goes to show the significance of this technology: if it were not posing a threat to the status quo there would be no need to police it.
Twenty four hours per day, every day, the WATS lines operated "recording incidents of violence and arrest, dispatching doctors and lawyers to aid the injured and incarcerated, alerting organizers of danger and need, notifying media and Justice Department of abuses and outrages, and coordinating support and assistance nation-wide" ("WATS & Incident Reports"). The notes taken down from the calls were compiled into the aforementioned WATS reports, which were periodically summarized and sent to the press (Atlanta SNCC Office).
Of great importance is the COFO report entitled "Incidents Reported to the Jackson Office During a 24 Hour Period, June 25 1964." It lists a heinous amount of racial violence: bombings, shootings, verbal threats, arson, arrests, and stalking ("Incidents Reported"). Having the ability as local activists and citizens to report on white supremacist brutality in real time was in all likelihood lifesaving. And having that data collected into organized reports served as quantitative evidence of the all-too prevalent threat of violence for Black individuals in the south.
It can be said that by employing centralized telephone services, both the police and civil rights organizations were able to streamline their communications processes, increasing the efficiency of responding to what each respectively deemed an emergency. Again, while the 911 side of this frequently served to criminalize citizens, Black citizens in particular, the WATS technology served to defend individuals against that criminalization and other forms of violence. Technology does not implicitly serve a particular end; it can't be classified as necessarily helpful or harmful. Rather, as exemplified here, technologies are tools that can be utilized in either direction.
Finally, as a technology taken up by the civil rights movement that doesn't quite have an analog in policing, though does have some shared traits with those discussed above, I present Black-oriented FM radio. Particularly, in Birmingham, AL were the stations WENN and WJLD. This ties back to the first 911 call in Haleyville, AL, where Eugene "Bull" Connor was in attendance. Birmingham is where Connor was the Commissioner of Public Safety and where he used disturbingly violent tactics to attempt to quell protests. In organizing those very protests, activists worked with DJs on WENN and WJLD to communicate broadly across the city. Brian Ward, in Radio and the Struggle for Civil Rights in the South, writes that "One key to the success of those demonstrations was the movement's capacity to stretch police resources and patience to the breaking point. The aim was to keep Connor and his lieutenants guessing as to precisely when, where, and in what numbers the demonstrators would next appear" (202). WENN, and sometimes WJLD were able to broadcast as different protestors gathered in various places around the city, and "play the Highway Q.C.s' equalitarian hymn 'All Men Are Made by God' as the signal for them to take to the streets" (Ward 202). Walkie-talkies were another technology that were then used to coordinate the movements of the distributed demonstrations.
Furthermore, "WENN's broadcasts of bogus traffic reports also helped protesters to identify exactly where police had blocked the streets in an effort to keep marchers away from city hall or the downtown shopping area. These fake traffic reports quite literally helped the movement to outmaneuver Connor" (Ward 202). This resembles the way the protestors of 2020 tuned in to police radio in order to track the locations of the police. This shows how different types of technology can be utilized in various ways in order to evade capture. But, on the other hand, protestors in Birmingham didn't always want to evade capture: Ward also writes that by outmaneuvering Connor, protestors intensified his frustration making "more likely the sorts of violent outbursts that served the movement's interests so well" (202). Television publicity in the 1960s was an important tool in garnering sympathy throughout the country for civil rights activists.
Additionally, Black-oriented radio was able to communicate to demonstrators information about protests that could prepare them for police repression as they encouraged those dramatic outbursts. Right before one of the infamous children's crusade marches, Shelley Stewart of WJLD instructed listeners to "bring your toothbrushes [to the so-called "party"], because lunch will be served" (Ward 204). This indicated to the students that they were likely to be arrested, since the jails in Birmingham were not well-stocked with toothbrushes.
Essentially, FM radio that was typically geared towards entertainment for the Black- community, was able to semi-covertly aid the movement for civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama. DJs coded their messages in order to protect their jobs and also to keep the police on their toes, a tactical move for the protests. Alongside the other technologies examined here, Black-oriented FM radio was a technology that was not implicitly repressive or radical, but when taken up by accomplices to the Black freedom struggle served to further the ends of the movement.
In summary, these five technologies (911 and WATS, police and CB radio, and Black- oriented FM radio) all played significant roles in the Black freedom movement of the 1960s-- some are even still used today. By looking at functionally comparable technologies we can see how similar tools can be used to empower both sides of the civil rights movement. Two-way radio-- police and CB-- both revolutionized communications technology and enabled users to communicate in real-time while mobile. Centralized phone lines-- 911 and WATS-- both streamlined the emergency response systems of different political actors. Additionally examining the alternative uses of Black-oriented FM radio, it's clear that technology in a white supremacist society was able to be leveraged for radical ends.
The narrative that power goes one way, exclusively from the top-down, is all too prevalent. It's limiting to suggest that power, and the technology that aids that power, is a purely repressive force; it's irresponsible, even dangerous, to imply that oppressed peoples are merely victims of technological developments that are wielded by the state. Black people in particular, as shown here, have historically taken up the tools of the police in order to fight for liberation. No matter how predatory and invasive our contemporary technologies continue to become, that reclamation will always be possible, will always be necessary.
Abate, Carolyn. "History of 911: America's Emergency Service, Before and After Kitty
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