Activist groups take full advantage of new media outlets to spread their message

By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 12:00 AM

When black college students began the sit-in protests that led to the integration of the Jim Crow South, news spread quickly by word of mouth. Soon, students in several states were engaged in similar nonviolent sit-ins, spurring on the civil rights movement.

Fast forward 50 years: Civil rights activists advocating everything from reform of the criminal justice system to boycotts of conservative media figures are trying to revive that kind of energy using tweets, e-mails, Facebook friends and carefully crafted blog postings.

"We try to create opportunities for everyday people who are not going to be your in-the-street activists," said James Rucker, co-founder of, an online civil rights group that he said has an e-mail list of 800,000. "We're trying to make it so that there's an easy way to get involved in making change happen."

Such online activism is succeeding in fits and starts. Color of Change, which was started five years ago in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, was one of the drivers behind the large protest marches and fundraisers in 2007 that eventually led to reduced charges for a half-dozen young black men in Jena, La., tied to the assault on a white classmate. Color of Change members and donors sent in $285,000 to help pay for their legal team, which got the charges reduced from attempted murder to a misdemeanor.

On the other hand, a campaign in September that sought to raise money for groups working to revive the black community in New Orleans flopped, Rucker said. Few people sent in contributions, and he could not get his online community to buy in.

Much of Rucker's work involves telling a compelling story and finding what he calls a "theory of change," or a cause that the group's members can directly impact with a click of their mouse. "The Internet has the power to democratize, and it has the power to amplify voices," he said.

The nation's oldest civil rights groups have begun to recognize the shift. The NAACP revamped its Web site last year and has begun a blog. Its Facebook page, which had only a couple thousand supporters two years ago, has more than 40,000, and its online advocacy list has grown to 400,000 members. It also sends out periodic text messages.

"We have placed our new media strategy at the nexus of our work on Capitol Hill and in the field," NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said.

Hispanic civil rights groups are launching similar efforts. Rucker helped build the online infrastructure for, which now has an e-mail list of 250,000, and helped raise awareness about the DREAM act, federal legislation that would have made it possible for illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to gain citizenship. Presente sent out e-mails and pushed media coverage of a group of undocumented youths, called the "DREAMers," who walked 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington in support of the legislation, which failed to pass the Senate this month. But President Obama has said he supports it and plans to press for an overhaul of immigration law next year.

Minority presence online

The growth of online activism targeting blacks and Hispanics has been spurred in part by data showing that minorities are outpacing other racial and ethnic groups in the use of social media. Research by the Pew Internet & Family Life Project has found that minority Internet users are more than twice as likely to use Twitter as are white Internet users. And in the past decade, the proportion of Internet users who are black or Latino has nearly doubled- from 11 percent to 21 percent.

The Internet has "become deeply integrated within all activism. It's not a distinctive, separate area. And it's become more inclusive," said Wes Boyd, a co-founder of the liberal online activist group where Rucker once worked. "You can make these connections for much less money, and [the] technology helps strengthen and extend traditional networks."

The NAACP, which turned 101 this year and has been working to remain relevant, launched an Internet campaign this year encouraging its members to rally behind Jamie and Gladys Scott, two sisters who have been imprisoned in Mississippi for 16 years. They were given double life sentences in 1993 for an armed robbery, which their supporters contend is extraordinary punishment for the crime. NAACP members have received e-mails asking them to sign a petition. The group's leaders also are doing old-school activism, reaching out to the governor's office to request a pardon for the Scotts.

"Our strategy is to use new media to supercharge our existing field, lobbying and communication capacities," Jealous said. "New media isn't our trick, but it's a groove that holds all of other work together."

Online activism can spark the kind of attention that brings cases such as the Scotts' to the attention of politicians, but more traditional power players, such as the NAACP president, still can get meetings with governors that online activists cannot.

'I'm not going to wait'

Rucker, whose group has four staff members, remains relatively unknown, and Color of Change tends to take on issues that are more controversial than traditional civil rights groups. (Rucker's group was co-founded by former Obama administration official Van Jones. Jones is no longer affiliated with the group.)

"Everyone knows about the NAACP," Rucker said. "There is a great power in that. At the same time, there are challenges as we enter into a digital age. There are a lot of dynamics that organizations have to keep up with or you can't be as effective. I'm not going to wait for anybody. I'm not going to defer to anybody when there's an opportunity to move issues."

Color of Change, for example, led a boycott against conservative commentator Glenn Beck after a program last year in which Beck called the president a "racist." Beck has since said that he regrets the statement. The boycott, which continues, has received mixed reviews, but Rucker calls it a success.

More than 300,000 of his online members sent e-mails or called advertisers of Beck's programs, and more than 100 advertisers left, including Geico, LexisNexis', Progressive Insurance and SC Johnson, according the trade publication Brandweek. Beck has condemned Color of Change's boycott on his show, and he remains among cable's most-watched news personalities.

"Glenn Beck's audience likes him. They believe in him. You're not going to get people to stop watching, but advertisers tend to be pretty timid," said Tobe Berkovitz, a political consultant and advertising professor at Boston University.

Berkovitz said the boycott is a reflection of how the Internet has changed civil rights activism. He cannot imagine the NAACP of the 1950s or '60s going after a singular media figure.

"It reflects the changes that have come to all sorts of social activists online in the sense they reflect our hyper-partisan age," he said.

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