WATS & Incident Reports
Before there were “800” numbers there was Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS). A WATS line allowed a company or organization to make unlimited long-distance calls in a specified geographic area for a flat monthly fee. In the early ’60s, a call from one county to another was often billed as “long-distance,” and long-distance calls were expensive. Cell-phones, of course, did not exist.
Many rural communities in the South did not yet have direct-dial for long-distance, so out-of-area calls had to be placed through the local operators who were all white (“Ma Bell” did not hire Blacks in the South for anything but the most menial positions). Operators in league with the Sheriff or Citizens Council would often block or tap calls from freedom fighters. But a WATS line allowed civil rights workers to bypass the local operators, which meant they could reach their offices when under siege by cops or the Klan. And with a WATS line, long-distance charges were billed to the organization and calls could be made from pay-phones, or the phones of local folk who had little money for phone bills. It was understood, of course, that Movement 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.
At SNCC, CORE, COFO, and SCLC offices in cities such as Jackson, Greenwood, Atlanta and Baton Rouge, the life-saving WATS lines were manned (or, more accurately, woman-ed) around the clock, 24 hours a day, 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.
As the calls came in over the WATS line hour by hour, the substance of each call was added to each day’s “WATS Report” and summaries were prepared and distributed to the press and Movement supporters around the country.
There is no doubt that there are Freedom Movement activists alive today who would have been killed or maimed had word not gotten out quickly of Freedom Houses under attack by Klan night-riders or of activists being “detained” by southern sheriffs.
James Forman. SNCC. June 24-26, 1964
SNCC? COFO? Undated possibly 1964
undated (possibly 1965)
WATS Report Incident Summaries
January 1-8 1964
MFDP. Oct 18-Nov2, 1964
Raw Daily WATS Reports
Some of the reports listed below are from the COFO WATS line in Jackson, some are probably from the SNCC office in either Atlanta or Greenwood. We’ve tried to guess which is which, but we can’t be sure we guessed right.
Before Freedom Summer ~ 1964
Freedom Summer ~ 1964
from June 21 & 22
Note: By July of 1964 there may have been three different WATS lines in operation. One in the COFO office in Jackson, one in the temporary SNCC national office in Greenwood, and it’s probably that the original SNCC WATS line in Atlanta was also still in operation. We’ve tried to guess which report are COFO and which SNCC, but it’s all guesswork.
After Freedom Summer ~ 1964
WATS Reports ~ 1965
WATS Reports ~ 1966
Visit the SNCC Digital Gateway for a collection of primary source press and policy statements created by SNCC.