The "Not-Buying Power" of the Black Community: Urban Boycotts and Equal Employment Opportunity, 1960-1964

Article excerpt

Protesters representing the NAACP shouted, "Don't stop, don't shop, till the flag drops" in 2002, as they publicized a multiyear tourism boycott against South Carolina. These protesters demanded a modification of the state's flag, which bears the Confederate emblem. It is an ongoing protest, one of several economic boycotts launched recently by the NAACP. Other national boycotts, including a five-month action against the Adam's Mark Hotel chain, have been concluded, and a boycott against major television networks, which cast few African Americans in principal roles, was threatened but not initiated. Although they expressed concern for the African American-owned businesses in South Carolina, many newspaper editorials and columnists agreed that such boycotts were justified, necessary, and potentially very effective. (1) It is significant to recall that boycotts as a civil rights strategy did not always meet with such widespread approbation. The NAACP itself looked askance at some of the boycotts launched in the 1950s and 1960s that sought to expand employment opportunities for African Americans. The public support for economic demands was a gamble for an organization that preferred a legal or political approach to civil rights. But urban and economic realities, combined with a new assertiveness among activists, gave prominence to this strategy, particularly in matters involving employment opportunities.

Boycotts have been one weapon long used by protesters seeking economic rights, and this strategy has been integral to 20th century civil rights protests in the urban North. Chicago, Detroit, and New York City all experienced consumer boycotts that aimed to win employment for African Americans, both before and after World War II. (2) These boycotts--far from receiving media approval--divided African American leaders and sparked competition among civil rights groups. Civil rights history has addressed rivalry in the movement, but it has been limited largely to the southern struggles or to individual personalities and leaders. Rivalry, furthermore, has been viewed as a sign of disintegration, not as a creative force. However, this emphasis does not fully consider the ways in which competition among activists and organizations transformed the strategies and shifted the goals of the movement itself. (3)

Boycotts in the 1960s reveal conflict among civil rights proponents because their actions began to command real potential in procuring jobs. The federal government and self-proclaimed progressive business leaders had demonstrated a rhetorical eagerness, if not a real commitment, to equal employment opportunity that civil rights leaders hoped would lead to more substantive racial integration in the workplace. Urban protesters began to use what some considered to be militant tactics: results-oriented strategies that called for affirmative action and racial proportionalism. The effect of this division caused activists to struggle with one another and against employers over the nature of quotas and goals, preferential treatment, and compensatory action. Indeed, remedies for employment discrimination can be seen, in part, as a product of this competition. (4)

In the early 1960s, activists were just beginning to develop a language of "affirmative action." That phrase, first used in an Executive Order by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, found currency among civil rights groups then engaged in street protests and negotiations with employers. (5) While the Kennedy administration declined to provide a specific definition of affirmative action in theory or practice, militant ministers and activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) did. Affirmative action was needed as compensation for past discrimination; employers who refused to hire minority workers should give preference to nonwhite job seekers to remedy past discriminatory practices. Such a rationale gave their actions a radical cast that offended some liberal civil rights supporters. …