This is part 10 in my ongoing and periodic series entitled “Philly’s Jim Crow,” which started on Sept. 10, 2016, and focuses on racist employment practices primarily in the city but also references such discrimination across the country.
This week’s installment is designed to make it crystal clear that a consumer boycott of any particular business is legal as long as it is done properly. Accordingly, as a trial lawyer for more than 20 years, I’ll explain how, in my opinion, to do it legally, meaning how to avoid losing a lawsuit if a boycotted business foolishly decides to sue boycotters.
But first, let’s discuss a little pertinent local history. From the early 1960s as an activist attorney through 1979 when he left City Council, the legendary Cecil B. Moore organized hundreds of boycotts against labor unions, construction sites, private businesses, and government agencies. Some of his most famous battles were against Trailways, Greyhound, the U.S. Postal Service, and Girard College. And he won all of them. As he pointed out, “From 1963-1967, I got more than 175,000 jobs for Blacks in this town.”
Although it’ll be very difficult to match or improve upon Cecil’s 175,000 anytime soon, it’s very easy to start working toward it right now. The first step is to identify what I describe as this city’s biggest Jim Crow employers. And, in order to be fair, I will contact the human resources departments at each of the major employers in the city to find out which ones are doing the righteous thing thereby resulting in commendation by being publicly applauded and which ones are doing the racist thing thereby resulting in condemnation by being publicly placed on the boycott list.
In Philly, the largest employers and/or the employers with the largest Black consumer base and/or the employers situated in largely Black neighborhoods and/or employers profiting largely from Black municipal taxpayer dollars include Acme Markets, Aramark, Bayada Home Healthcare, CVS, Crown Holdings, Drexel University, City of Philadelphia, Comcast Corporation/Comcast Spectacor, Einstein Healthcare Network, Jefferson Health System, Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council, SEPTA, Temple University, University of Pennsylvania/University of Pennsylvania Healthcare, United Parcel Service, Urban Outfitters, Vanguard Group, and several others.
Black folks simply want- and deserve — equitable (not just equal) access and opportunity. All of the aforementioned employers will be given a fair chance to prove how they equitably and substantively support the Black community. And if any employer does not or cannot prove such, that employer could find itself confronted by “The New ‘Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work’” boycott campaign. During the 1930s, Black people in several cities responded to white businesses’ racial discrimination by creating the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” initiative. For example, there was the New Negro Alliance, founded in D.C. in 1933, that successfully used boycotts against white employers who refused to hire college-educated Blacks in professional positions.
Black residents of Philadelphia, despite possessing supposed political power as the largest demographic at over 42%, inexplicably have the highest unemployment and underemployment rates. Well, it’s not really inexplicable if you factor in employment-related racial discrimination. Moreover, of the Black folks who are employed here, their households earn only around 60 percent of what white households earn. Furthermore, about half of the city’s poor are Black, meaning, generally speaking, a three-person household (consisting of an adult and two children) earning less than around $20,000 annually.
So what we gon’ do? Well, we gon’ fight like Cecil fought and like the original “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” activists fought. And an essential weapon in their fight and in our fight is the boycott. But, in order to avoid legal problems, the fighting’s gotta be done right. The following will explain how it’s done right.
Fifty-four years ago in 1966, brave Blacks in and near Port Gibson, Claiborne County, Miss., submitted a petition to white elected officials calling for an end to long-term, relentless, and suffocating racial discrimination. When those racist officials summarily rejected the justice-seeking petition, a local NAACP chapter organized a meeting at the First Baptist Church where nearly one thousand showed up and voted to begin a boycott of area white businesses. After a few starts and stops, the boycott commenced in earnest three years later following the 1968 assassination of MLK and the April 18, 1969, murder of an unarmed young Black man named Roosevelt Jackson by two Port Gibson cops.
The next day, on April 19, after law enforcement authorities refused to charge those murderous cops and after city leaders refused to fire the entire Port Gibson Police Department, Charles Evers — the boldly courageous NAACP Mississippi chapter field secretary — held a rally in front of the Claiborne County Courthouse and announced the reignited boycott. But this fearless no-nonsense hero didn’t stop there. He went on by proclaiming to Black folks, “If we catch any of you going into these racist stores, we’re going to break your damn neck.”
During the impressively and historically lengthy boycott, a group of supporters known by some as the “Black Hats” and by others as the “Deacons” would stand outside the targeted stores and identify any Black person who patronized those stores. And the names of those violators would be announced at NAACP meetings and published in Black newspapers. (And to that, I say “Yessssss, Lawd!”)
Six months later in October, after having suffered severe economic losses due to the boycott, 17 white merchants filed a lawsuit against the NAACP, Evers, and another boycott leader. Following numerous pre-trial motions and hearings, the trial finally began in 1973. When it ended four years later in 1977, the Mississippi Chancery Court ruled against the boycott organizers by concluding that they were liable for “malicious interference” with 12 of the 17 white racists based on state laws banning secondary boycotts and also banning “restraint of trade” activities. They were then ordered to pay $1,250,699 plus interest for the 11-year boycott initiated in 1966 and ending in 1977.
The boycotters appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark civil rights case captioned NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware and, on July 2, 1982, won in a unanimous decision setting forth the following three key declarations:
1. Because the boycott was nonviolent since no white businesses were physically attacked or even verbally threatened, it was protected by the First Amendment rights to speech, assembly, association, and petition.
2. Although Evers’ impassioned statements on April 19, 1969, were belligerent and apoplectic, those statements were legal because they were directed only to Black consumers (who didn’t file suit against anybody for anything) and also because those statements did not specifically “incite violence or specifically authorize the use of violence.”
3. Although states do have the legal authority to regulate economic activities, they do not have the legal authority to prohibit peaceful political activism — including boycotts.
Therefore, peaceful boycotts are lawful in America. And peaceful boycotts are coming to Philadelphia. Stay tuned.