When Chas Moore took the podium at AT&T's downtown Dallas plaza, he urged the protesters not to buy into what he called the "bastardized" version of MLK's message that has become prevalent.
On Monday, MLK Day, he told the crowd that corporations had coopted MLK's legacy, erasing much of the civil rights icon's radicalism. They had gathered to rally in support of voting rights and to send a message to AT&T, which they accused of bankrolling the politicians clamping down on those rights. Moore, an organizer with the Austin Justice Coalition activist group, later told the Observer
, "I've kind of grown to hate this holiday."
Since last summer, AT&T has caught flak for expressing support for expanded voting rights
while also making donations to Gov. Greg Abbott and other Texas Republicans who led the charge on a handful of so-called election integrity laws
, which have been criticized for disproportionately making it more difficult for voters of color
and those with disabilities to cast their ballots.
“You can either support the politicians that support these bills, or you can say you support us and you support voting rights," Moore said. "But you can’t do both."
Last June, AT&T donated $100,000 to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's reelection campaign
on the same day he announced a special legislative session specifically aimed at passing a version of the restrictive election integrity bill.
A few months before, AT&T CEO John Stankey told The Hill
that the company believes “the right to vote is sacred, and we support voting laws that make it easier for more Americans to vote in free, fair and secure elections.”
Between 2015 and April 2021, AT&T gave $811,000 to state legislators who have tried to cut down on voting access across the country, according to Public Citizen, a progressive watchdog group. That sum made AT&T the single largest corporate donor to GOP lawmakers pushing the harsh voting bills.
“These are donations to some of the most horrible voter suppression laws to ever exist,” said Dominique Alexander
, president and founder of the Next Generation Action Network.
"I’ve kind of grown to hate this holiday." - Chas Moore
AT&T's financial relationship with backers of voting restrictions go even further. One America News Network, or OAN, has been funded almost entirely by AT&T, a Reuters investigation revealed last October.
OAN, a far-right outlet that gained popularity following former President Donald Trump's defeat in the 2020 election, focuses much of its content on baseless voter fraud conspiracies that contend that Trump actually won the 2020 election. AT&T's DirecTV dropped OAN a few days before MLK Day.
Alexander, alongside activists from The Dallas Black Clergy and Live Free Texas, also called out the lack of high-speed internet connections in Dallas’ disinvested, predominantly Black communities compared with the rest of the city. AT&T is the largest telecommunications provider in the world
But in its hometown of Dallas, the divide between low-income, majority-Black and wealthier neighborhoods remains among the largest in the country.
AT&T spokespeople didn't respond to request for comment. But in an MLK Day statement released a few days before the holiday, the company said: “The work being done to eliminate the digital divide for millions of Americans by ensuring reliable connectivity can drive economic development and increase graduation rates and higher education attainment.”
As the protest wound down, Alexander said AT&T executives should “come out strong” in support of federal legislation aimed at protecting voting rights nationwide. That message comes amid a wave of restrictive voting laws in state legislatures nationwide.
The two proposed bills, which proponents say will increase participation in elections among low-income, Black and brown voters, are awaiting a vote before the U.S. Senate as of Tuesday.
Alexander said Texas activists will continue calling on AT&T to align their spending with their public statements. “If not, we will continue to come out here,” he said.