• U.S.

U.S. Business: The Boycott Road to Rights

3 minute read

The U.S.’s 20 million Negroes have more income ($27 billion annually) than ever—and some pragmatic beliefs about spending it. “The quickest way to a white man’s conscience,” goes a favorite Negro saying, “is through his pocketbook.” This may hit the mark, because the most successful Negro civil rights stratagem so far has been neither sit-in nor lawsuit. Negro leaders, skirting restraint-of-trade laws, call the device “selective buying.” It is really a consumer boycott, and it can be devastatingly effective.

“Name the Traitor.” Northern and Southern techniques vary. Southern Negroes with broader goals boycott entire business districts as a community protest. In Birmingham, retailers have averaged a $750,000 weekly loss, some because Negro trade boycotted stores, some because whites did not venture downtown for fear of possible violence. “The boycott seems to be moderating,” says one businessman. “But it has been effective all right.” In Macon, Ga., last year, Negroes discontinued riding buses to protest segregated seating, came back only after the bus company, suffering a 50% fare loss, capitulated. Charleston, S.C., Negroes won 16 clerks’ jobs by selective buying, tightened their boycott with weekly “name the traitor” meetings at which line breakers were singled out. Negro women in Jackson, Miss., last week launched a “Don’t Buy on Capitol Street” campaign, stationed pickets outside J. C. Penney’s.

Success in such broadsides varies. But hitting all stores concurrently is never as potent as the single-shot selective buying staged by Northern Negroes for job equality. Last year 300 Detroit ministers asked their congregations to bypass Tip Top bread and Borden’s milk, and alerted nonchurchgoers among Detroit’s 400,000 Negroes with catchy leaflets (“Lock the Gate. Elsie Won’t Cooperate”). Negroes were soon hired or upgraded not only by those companies but by 40 more who got the message. Philadelphia ministers have singled out, among others, A. & P., Sun Oil, Tasty Baking Co. and Breyer’s ice cream; they claim that their campaign has been responsible for 1,000 new jobs for Negroes, amounting to $4,000,000 more in Negro buying power. In Boston, Continental Baking Co. has just hired eight Negro salesmen after 29 days of selective buying by Negroes.

No Fault. Boycotts occasionally backfire because the companies involved are not really at fault. Hit by selective buying in Los Angeles, Anheuser-Busch showed that it was ready to hire Negro truck drivers but that the Teamsters Union was not. Against such union discrimination, some Negro boycott leaders are considering a new wrinkle, which they learned from labor itself: a general strike of all Negro workers that would call attention to the situation.

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