How to Make a Dollar Work: The Black Boycott

Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work / Washington Area Spark /Flickr/ CC BY-NC 2.0

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What does it mean to boycott?

Our community has boycotted countless stores, initiatives and causes in the name of civil rights, equal treatment, anti-war and even anti-establishment. But to what end? And could we qualify some tactics to be more impactful than others?

As we reflect on boycotts of years past and initiatives of years present, let us think about how we can apply - and alter - strategies that may or may not apply in the present age. In 2017 are boycotts enough? We’ll let you decide.

1. The First “Don’t Buy” Boycott

Chicago, IL serves as homebase as the earliest “don’t buy” boycott. In the late 1920s - and on the cusp of the Great Depression - this national movement was spurred in response to rising unemployment rates of Black workers (which, at the time, was almost triple that of the national average).

Initially spurred by Joseph Bibb, editor of the Chicago-based newspaper The Whip, the boycott called to quell shopping at stores that refused to hire Blacks.

With the involvement of the Black church, most notably that of Reverend J.C. Austin of the Pilgrim Baptist Church, the movement quickly spread and influenced the eventual hiring of more than 2,000 Blacks -- mostly as clerks at area department stores.

The Chicago “Don’t Buy” boycott originally targeted a small chain of grocery stores, but would eventually spread to include the infamous Woolworths Department Stores across Chicago’s Black Belt community.

Woolworths would be the same department store chain that was later the setting for the infamous Greensboro Four sit-in in South Carolina nearly forty years later.

The economic boycott - as opposed to a traditional protest -  produced faster results and united segments of the Black community that were previously frustrated with a ‘traditional’ approach.  

By using direct tactics, as opposed to appealing to a lagging legislative process or inequitable public policies, the economic boycott turned racial injustice to an economic issue.

And the culprits aptly responded.

2. The Montgomery Bus Boycott

Noted as one of the most famous boycotts to ever occur, the Montgomery Bus Boycott consisted of a year of dedicated and organized protests targeted towards the Montgomery transit system in Alabama.

LIke the “don’t buy” boycott, the Montgomery Bus Boycott targeted a single issue: segregated seating on public buses.

From December 5, 1955 to December 20, 1956, Blacks in Montgomery boycotted public buses in an effort to economically depress the city’s public transit system.

Officially beginning on the day of Rosa Parks’ court hearing, following her refusal to yield her seat to a white man, the boycott served as a pedestal of which Martin Luther King, Jr. would emerge as a prominent leader of the Civil Rights Movement.

So just what did the boycotters do instead? For 381 days, Black boycotters walked or rode bikes to/from work, or received rides from their bosses who were also in support of the movement.

In response to empty buses, the city closed-down routes to Black communities and penalized taxi drivers if they did not charge the required minimum charge. Whites - as usual - used violence to counteract our tactics.

However, try as they might to depress the boycott by any means necessary, we continued to persist. The Montgomery Bus Boycott gained national notoriety and solidified Martin Luther King, Jr.’s position as a leader of the movement.

It also served as a guide for how to resists moving forward and set the stage for later legislation that would outlaw segregation in public accommodations, as well as the voting rights legislation to extend true civic power to people of the Black race.

3. Boycotts of the American Holiday Season

In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. proposed a boycott of the Christmas holiday. It is widely reported  that Rev. King wanted us to “withdraw our economic support, so that those who give us pain can receive some pain in return.”

By boycotting Christmas, and not Jesus, King - and later Minister Louis Farrakhan - called for us to not spend our money on “Black Friday, Black Saturday, Black Sunday, Black Monday” - or any other day.

There was no justifiable reason to continue to spend our money with companies that perpetuated a system of inequitable treatment of Black lives.

Black Friday boycotts gained renewed momentum in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown and the continued virality of police brutality.

While the direct impact of the 2014 holiday boycotts of major retailers is disputed, what is undisputed is the 11% drop in sales over Thanksgiving weekend - resulting in nearly $7 billion in lost revenue.

Additionally, this coordinated effort gained nationwide media attention - drawing the public’s focus to the issue of police brutality and recognition of Black economic power.

Unlike previous boycotts, however, its target was not a singular store -- and for that some (even some in the Black community) didn’t view it as being impactful. Nevertheless, it caused a stir and will likely still be a tactic used in years to come. 

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