Privacy, travel and boarding, hospitality and generosity. These words do not appear in the U.S. Constitution, but for generations they have been cherished virtues and rights especially for the African-American community, which endured centuries of bondage only to be liberated into the clutches of Black Codes, Jim Crow, redlining, the prison industrial complex and a legion of discriminatory laws that prevented it from amassing economic, social and political power.
As a result, Black Americans have used every lever at their disposal to seek liberty and justice for their families and communities, leveraging technology and innovation, along with unparalleled fearlessness and determination.
In the 19th century, a network of abolitionists used private homes and businesses to provide shelter and safe harbor to liberate tens of thousands of enslaved individuals via the Underground Railroad. In fact, like most revolutionary struggles, technology played a significant role in communication among abolitionists and to persuade the public of the virtues of the cause of Emancipation. The print press was one form of such technology.
In the 20th century, Black Americans once again leveraged technology to confront and overthrow the system of Jim Crow segregation. In Birmingham, Selma and beyond, civil rights leaders used the new medium of television to showcase the depraved violence of law enforcement against citizens—from fire hoses turned on grandmothers and children to police dogs attacking pregnant woman and young Black men. The images shocked the conscience of the nation, with President John F. Kennedy stating that the struggle was, “so much more eloquently reported by the news camera than by any number of explanatory words.”
During the struggle for economic justice and political empowerment of the ’60s through the ’80s, technology was again employed for communication and persuasion. Black radio and print media such as newspapers and magazines served multiple purposes in pursuit of equality, including organizing the Black community around certain economic and political interests. From the South African divestment movement of the early ’80s, which sought to disrupt and end the system of apartheid, to the presidential campaigns of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, when millions of Blacks, Latinos, Native-Americans and poor whites were mobilized into a populous political movement that culminated in more than 7 million votes and several primary victories in 1988.
Today, in the 21st century, activists are once again using technology to organize, to inspire and to uncover injustices in big cities and small towns around the world. In 2000, the Million Mom March for common sense gun laws was launched by one woman using the computer in her basement. The presidential campaigns of Barack Obama were powered by groundbreaking innovations in the application of social media and digital communications for fundraising, voter engagement, mobilization and organizing. The Arab Spring was fueled by social media, which brought millions of young people into the streets of North African and Middle Eastern countries to demand change. And today’s Black Lives Matter movement began as a hashtag. In my own work as a civil rights activist in the tradition of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I can attest to the immeasurable impact that technology is having on the criminal justice reform debate. From Eric Garner on Staten Island, N.Y. to Walter Scott, in North Charleston, S.C., technology is transforming our perspective and reinvigorating a mass movement.
Freedom of the press, which once belonged only “to those who own one,” as New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling famously observed, is now in the hands of every individual with a smartphone and an internet connection.
Of course, communications technology alone has never been enough to move mountains. Rather, these liberation/political movements have relied on people who opened their homes to fleeing enslaved peoples, Freedom Riders and protesters of every color and creed.
The Underground Railroad relied on abolitionists who shared their homes to hide and aid those seeking freedom. The Civil Rights Movement could not have occurred without the courage and generosity of families throughout the South who opened their doors to students, clergy and concerned citizens of every color and creed. And, today, traditional civil rights and Black Lives Matter activists seek and find refuge in the basements and fellowship halls of churches across the country.
Today, we are free of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, but not of the profound inequity that is the legacy of centuries of discrimination. The wealth gap between Black and white Americans—already a chasm—has expanded since the Great Recession. According to Pew Research, in 2013, the median net worth of households headed by whites was roughly 13 times that of Black households ($144,200 compared with $11,200).
Once again, African-Americans are embracing technology and sharing their homes, this time in the furtherance of economic opportunity and equality. The number of Airbnb guests grew 78 percent year-over-year in the 30 New York City ZIP codes with the largest percentage of Black residents, pumping $43 million into the pockets of hosts in these neighborhoods.
And yet, once again, the government is threatening to stifle an innovative source of supplemental income and community empowerment. Like Black folks are known to say, “Once we master the game, they change the rules.”
Is the fight over Airbnb on the same plane as the Underground Railroad or the Civil Rights Movement? Of course not. But just as technology enabled abolition in the antebellum South and TV and radio were central to the struggle for civil rights, political, social and economic empowerment, so the information superhighway is leading many to realize some measure of economic stability, security and liberty.
Home sharing not only puts money in the pockets of families in need but also stimulates the local economies of communities of color and helps us achieve understanding and harmony across peoples and cultures. When we open our homes to each other, we open our minds and hearts to new worlds, new possibilities, new friendships, new traditions, new perspectives and new ideas. We break down the barriers that have accumulated over time and space and experience each other as fellow human beings, not as “them.”
As the calendar turns to December, the season of Advent and Christmas will light up windows in New York City, the Northeast and across America. The message is simple, but profound: There is room in this inn, shelter for the frigid, food for the hungry, a human touch for the weary. The ancient art of home sharing is being transformed by new technology. Now is the time to embrace this innovation, not snuff out the candle for the next generation of trailblazers, dreamers and activists.
Minister Foy is the Northeast regional director of the National Action Network.