"Miss HCR Born 2009 Died 2010"
I thought perhaps yesterday's example of British abolitionists' sugar boycott was a bit remote for Americans, so today I'd like to introduce a few consumers' boycotts closer to home.
First, the AP reported on April 5, 1960:
A new battlecry, "No fashions for Easter," has been sounded in the fight by Negroes for equal treatment in Southern business establishments.
Dr. Vivian Henderson, an economics professor at Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn, urged more than 500 Negroes at a meeting in Nashville to continue boycotting downtown business firms, even to the point of passing up Easter finery.
The boycotts were begun two weeks ago in support of efforts to end racial segregation at lunch counters. Henderson said, "Millions of dollars are being lost by the city of Nashville over a 25-cent hamburger."
Spending by African-Americans was estimated at the time to be worth about $50M a year in Nashville, with $10M spent just downtown. It took just about a month for the boycott's full impact to be felt, and a mere month later 69 cities were under the same nonviolent assault.
Events in Nashville came to a head on April 19, when the home of Alexander Looby, lawyer for students conducting the lunch counter sit-ins, was bombed. After 3000 people marched on City Hall to confront Mayor Ben West one of the students, Diane Nash, asked, "do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?"
The question went to the heart of nonviolence, bypassing all the political boilerplate and appealing directly to West's conscience. The mayor did not disappoint. He nodded—and then said yes. 'They asked me some pretty soul-searching questions—and one that was addressed to me as a man." West said years later "And I found that I had to answer it frankly and honestly—that I did not agree that it was morally right for someone to sell them merchandise and refuse them service. And I had to answer it just exactly like that."
Stunned by West's honesty, the marchers burst into thunderous applause, and the next day, the Nashville Tennessean ran a huge headline: INTEGRATE COUNTERS—MAYOR. [Note: he also said it was up to the businesses to decide, which the The Nashville Banner focused on.] Three weeks later, six downtown stores targeted by demonstrators opened their lunch counters to blacks
It was an enormous victory for the fledgling movement. The day after the march, Martin Luther King came to Nashville to honor the students. Calling their campaign the "best organized and the most disciplined" in the South, he said he had come "not to bring inspiration but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community."
In The Politics of Nonviolent Action, Gene Sharp made note of a few more boycotts for equality:
In 1938, as part of a jobs-for-Negroes movement...Negroes in Harlem, New York City, conducted a "blackout boycott" every Tuesday night by turning off electricity and lighting candles to induce Consolidated Edison Co. to hire Negroes in jobs above the unskilled level...During the summer of 1960 about 250,000 people in the Philadelphia area carried out a "selective patronage program" against the Tasty Baking Co...in order to obtain equal job opportunities for Negroes. Faced with further boycotts, the Pepsi-Cola Company and Gulf Oil in Philadelphia quickly capitulated and hired Negroes for positions from which they had previously been excluded.
Boycotts and "buycotts" were also used by the abolitionist movement in the United States in the 1820s:
Like every episode of consumer activism in every era of U.S history, the boycotters of this period drew, both explicitly and implicitly, on the theories and actions of previous groups. All of these antebellum movements linked their efforts to the nonimportation campaigns of the Revolutionary generation. The free produce abolitionists in particular built on a nearly continuous tradition of consumer protest that long preceded their movement.
Many of them were inspired by the example of John Woolman (1720-1772), the Quaker who, as a young man, made the decision to eschew all commercial connections with slavery; for example, he wore undyed clothing because slaves made dyes. Woolman's journals, first published in 1774, provided a personal model of the eschewal of slave-made goods.
As the poet and free labor advocate John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in an introduction to an edition of Woolman's journals that also nicely describes the broader phenomenology of the spread of consumer activism, "We are often surprised to find the initial link in the chain of causes to be some comparatively obscure individual, the divine commission and significance of whose life were scarcely understood by his contemporaries, and perhaps not even by himself. The little one has become a thousand; the handful of corn shakes like Lebanon."
Free produce advocates were also inspired by the Quaker Elias Hicks's Observations on the Slavery of the Africans (1811) Hicks went beyond Woolman's personal politics by imploring other Quakers to avoid slave-produced goods. In addition, American abolitionists were well aware of the organized and popular boycotts of slave-produced sugar that began in Britain in the 1790s and continued sporadically through the 1820s.
Finally, many free producers were doubtless aware of the maple sugar craze of the early 1790s, in which Benjamin Franklin and others encouraged entrepreneurial Americans to market the sweet sap of the maple tree as an alternative to slave-grown cane sugar. The successful marketing of maple sugar, claimed one advocate, would "diminish so many strokes of the whip which our luxury draws upon the blacks."
The early movements introduced tensions that continue to exist within consumer activism, occasionally divide consumer activists, and persist in frustrating their opponents within and outside the cause. For example, there were no fiercer critics of the free produce efforts than fellow abolitionists...
I certainly don't want to overstate the power of the boycott in this instance. Clearly our Civil War settled the issue of the South's peculiar institution through violence, so we'll never know if this nonviolent intervention along with other economic factors would have, as some have suggested, made emancipation inevitable.
What I found most instructive about this example is that when actionists engage, they almost inevitably catch flak from their ostensible allies within a movement. As Sam Adams (no, not my son's namesake) once said: Action is always going to be more controversial than inaction.
Boycotts, or nonimportation agreements, were also used by Americans in response to the Stamp Act and other British acts to impose taxes and/or restrictions on colonial life and commerce.
Courtesy the Library of Congress. A March 18, 1766, cartoon
titled, "The repeal or the funeral of Miss Ame-stamp." Shows a funeral
procession on the banks of the Thames...George Grenville carries a
coffin inscribed "Miss Ame-stamp B. 1765 died 1766."
Ray Raphael wrote in The First American Revolution: Before Lexington And Concord:
In 1768 the British Parliament and the Crown, [intent] on raising money from the colonies and protecting British industry, imposed a duty on goods exported to the colonies, such as glass, lead, paint, paper, and tea. This new wave of taxation, embodied in the Townshend Revenue Act, further fueled the political flames in Massachusetts. The House responded by discouraging British imports and encouraging home manufacture...
This was a hard program to oppose since it would simultaneously help the balance of trade, force Parliament to take note of the colonists, and encourage industry and moral fortitude on a personal level...various nonimportation agreements circulated among the citizenry, with the signers pledging not to buy any goods from merchants who peddled imported products.
To the merchants of the great ports it was a disagreeable necessity: they would not accept Parliament's right to tax them, but transatlantic commerce was their life. But to Philadelphia's artisans it was another matter. Like New Yorkers and Bostonians, Philadelphians were enduring the depression that had settled on the colonies at the end of the Seven Years' War. It seemed to the artisans that non-importation offered a chance to bring prosperity back. Without British imports there would be more of a market for their own goods But when Parliament repealed four of the five Townshend Duties in 1770, leaving only the duty on tea in place, nonimportation began to collapse.
Nonimportation was so effective that when it achieved most of the colonists' aims, the movement started to fade. Not unlike what we saw with the antiwar movement when Vietnam wound down, it would seem.
With previous victories in mind, the tactic continued to be used against a variety of British acts, including the Tea Act in 1773 (try to find the irony lost on today's Tea Partiers): By reducing the tax on imported British tea, this act gave British
merchants an unfair advantage in selling their tea in America. And returning to Raphael, we see Worcester held a town meeting in March 1774:
Responding to "a Request of Twenty-seven of the Freeholders and other inhabitants," the town at this time addressed the two most pressing issues facing people of Massachusetts: the tax on tea and the Crown's payment of executive and judicial salaries [a major concern because it threatened the independence of officers in the colonies]. In [a strongly worded statement approved by a narrow margin], the town resolved not to purchase imported tea and also promoted a secondary boycott: anybody who sold contraband tea, the citizens declared, had "justly merited our Indignation, and Contempt, and must be considered, and treated by us, as enimys [sic] and trators [sic] to their Country."
Which brings us back to my musings on Sunday: if targeting insurance companies is not practicable, how about ancillary corporations like cable companies who carry their ads and are part of the corporatist problem?
With the Democrats so hapless and ineffective, we might not need to engage in boycotts to kill the health care bill that's taken a year to deform. However, unlike the Democrats, we need to consider a Plan B. Perhaps that includes organizing consumer boycotts and other direct action to get real reform like Medicare for All and HR676.