As our community reflects this month on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s work, we must never forget his central thesis of his Poor Peoples’ Campaign: we can’t have racial justice without economic justice.
A few years ago, the late Congressman John Lewis updated this thesis for the digital age: “Access to the internet is the civil rights issue of the 21st century,” he famously said in what might be called the Lewis Amendment to King’s adage.
To honor these legacies, the Biden Administration and Congress must take on digital equity as a central part of their work. Temporary band-aids and mismanaged broadband boondoggles just won’t cut it any longer. We need a comprehensive agenda to get every American connected.
Step one is building out infrastructure to make sure no communities across our state and country are left behind.
In Georgia, about 96 percent of neighborhoods already have broadband – but at least 19 percent of Georgians living in rural areas don’t have high-speed internet infrastructure. In rural communities of color, the gap is even worse: majority Black rural counties are 16 percent less likely to have broadband coverage than majority white rural counties.
The Biden Administration’s economic rescue and infrastructure programs offer an opportunity to close this rural divide. But we need to learn from the mistakes of earlier efforts, when the federal government wasted too much money building duplicative networks in wealthier suburbs that already have broadband.
This time we need to focus our collective resources on the digital have-nots, including predominantly Black communities in the rural South.
Step two is tackling a different challenge that persists even where internet service is widely available: equipping every family with the devices, the digital know-how, and the means to actually sign up.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 66 percent of African Americans and 61 percent of Hispanics are connected to broadband at home, compared to 79 percent of whites.
Businesses, schools and community organizations all need to step up to the plate to help close this pernicious gap in broadband adoption in communities of color.
Offering a model to the nation, Atlanta Public Schools have partnered with broadband providers and local civic organizations in the groundbreaking Get Our Kids Connected program, which provides home broadband for free to APS students who aren’t already connected.
These kinds of private sector programs and partnerships have connected millions of low-income Americans.
But the federal government can’t keep leaving a civil rights imperative like universal connectivity up to the goodwill of the private sector or the creativity of local school districts.
It’s past time we guarantee every American the ability to purchase the connectivity that has become an essential gateway to education, employment, health care, and political expression.
John Lewis would have been proud when, late last year, Congress created the Emergency Broadband Benefit, with temporary subsidies of up to $50 a month to help low-income families stay connected.
Democratic leaders, including House Majority Whip James Clyburn, have proposed committing an additional $6 billion to extend the broadband benefit program well into next year.
And President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan provides additional funding that cities and school districts can use to create broadband partnerships similar to Atlanta’s initiative.
These progressive ideas to advance digital inclusion are groundbreaking – but still, for now, just temporary. Congress needs to make these emergency programs permanent, by enacting a long-term broadband benefit program for low-income households.
At the same time, we need to come together as a community to educate and persuade our unconnected neighbors on the vital necessity of signing up.
It’s not just a luxury – it’s increasingly the medium through which a new generation of civil rights activists are leading the struggle for our political and civic survival in the face of the most odious voter suppression campaign in generations. The stakes are too high to sit by and accept anything less than full digital enfranchisement.
When Dr. King and Congressman Lewis helped create and lead the modern civil rights movement, they sought to eliminate racial barriers from the polling places to the public schools.
Now, the next step in our journey to justice is bridging the digital divide that keeps African Americans from first-class citizenship in the Information Age.
As Dr. King often declared, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
Helen Butler serves as Executive Director of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, an advocacy organization composed of representatives from the human rights, civil rights, environmental, labor, women, young professionals, youth, elected officials, peace and justice groups throughout the State of Georgia founded by the late Dr. Joseph E. Lowery.