To Buy or Not to Buy? The African-American use of Consumerism in the Fight for Civil Rights

Consumerism can be used as a tool for advancing the interests of particular social groups, such as one group in twentieth century America did, by effectively using their spending power in the fight for equality. African-Americans showed the world how the spending – or withholding – of money could help enact great social change.

From 1877 onwards, African-Americans’ freedom, supposedly promised to them in the U.S. Constitution, were constrained by the discriminatory ‘Jim Crow’ laws which enforced segregation – the separation of white and black. The laws were named after a theatre character from the nineteenth century, which was created to represent contemporary white, discriminatory depictions of African-Americans and their culture.

Consumerism can be used as a tool for advancing the interests of particular social groups, such as one group in twentieth century America did, by effectively using their spending power in the fight for equality. African-Americans showed the world how the spending – or withholding – of money could help enact great social change.

The Original Jim Crow’ (c. 1832) played by Timothy D. Rice. Jim Crow is dressed in rags, wears a tattered hat and has shoes riddled with holes. This is how the majority of white Americans would have viewed their African-American counterparts in the 1800s, at a period in time where slavery was still legal. Source: Wikipedia

It was only in 1865 – at the end of the American Civil War – that slavery in the USA was abolished. Alongside the Jim Crow laws, this meant that the average African-American at the dawn of the twentieth century was rural, lived in squalor, and did not possess the monetary means with which to exert any significant level of consumer power.

However, the catalyst for change came with the Great Migration, which was a mass rural exodus by African-Americans, who headed from the agricultural south to the promise of the industrial north. The Great Migration hit its peak in the years after the First World War, but between 1916 and 1970, over 6 million black Americans made the long journey northwards.

Many African-Americans were now able to exert the little consumer power they possessed, as they were now concentrated in urban areas, such as Harlem, New York. For example, the ‘Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work Campaign’, encouraged African-Americans to use black businesses, not white ones. In this way, consumer power was used primarily by withholding money, as opposed to spending it.

A protestor in Chicago, c. 1929. The ‘Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work Campaign’ was started by the black-owned newspaper, the Chicago Whip, in 1929. The campaign was designed to get African-Americans to boycott Chicago stores that would not hire black staff. Source: @InThePastLane (Twitter)

These consumer boycotts began at the start of the Great Depression, meaning that struggling white businesses lost the favour of many black patrons. At the dawn of the Second World War, African-Americans were still not recognised as a significant consumer group by white businesses, but the post-war economic boom would change all of this.

Further urbanisation occurred during and after the Second World War, and the simultaneous economic boom meant that prosperity spread across the USA, which included African-Americans. This previously impoverished demographic now had cash on the hip, which they could now use to exert their consumer power by both spending and withholding money.

In 1947, black spending power was estimated to be between $8-9 billion annually, but by 1969, this figure sat at around $30 billion. In just over twenty years, African-America’s collective spending power had more than tripled. This growth began to attract the attention of white businesses, as they caught the whiff of profit from this previously ignored demographic. As a result, the immediate post-war years saw the birth of the ‘Negro Market’.

Figure 1: a Budweiser beer advert c. 1934. Figure 2: a Budweiser beer advert, c. 1962. The difference in the depiction of African-Americans in these two adverts shows how they became a targeted consumer group. In Figure 1, the black character is shown to be servile, but in Figure 2 African-Americans are being directly targeted as consumers. This demonstrates how significant a turning point the Second World War was for African-American consumerism. Sources: & Pinterest

Despite the growing recognition of African-Americans in the consumer world, they were still subject to major social injustices, primarily in the Jim Crow south. In order to combat discrimination, African-Americans looked to hit white business where it would hurt them the most – their wallets.

In 1955, Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat for a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, sparked a bus boycott which lasted for over a year. On the first day of the boycott, 90% of Montgomery’s black population walked; over the forthcoming year, the city’s bus operators lost around 65% of their revenue. This consumer crusade led to the U.S. Supreme Court taking action, and on 20 December 1956, segregation on the buses was ruled to be unconstitutional. After 381 days of protest, Montgomery’s buses were integrated the very next day.

Rosa Parks, whilst under arrest c. 1955. Parks’ brave and bold demonstration against the injustices of overt racial discrimination in the Jim Crow south made her one of the pioneers of the Civil Rights movement. Source: Britannica

Rosa Parks’ demonstration, and the consequent year-long bus boycott, proved that African-Americans could enact significant social change through their economic actions. Events which unfolded in Montgomery inspired other African-Americans to take economic action, leading to a series of sit-ins and boycotts across the Jim Crow south in the early 1960s to try and force social change.

One of the most famous sit-ins – at the Woolworths’ lunch counter in Jackson, Mississippi – was in protest to the fact that black customers would not be served there. On 28 May 1963, Anne Moody sat at the counter and refused to move until she was served, and suffered a volley verbal and physical abuse as a result. Moody was joined by two whites at the counter as well, both of whom opposed segregation.

The protest at the Woolworths’ lunch counter in Jackson, MI, c. 28 May 1963. The African-American, Anne Moody, is joined by John Salter and Joan Trumpauer, two white protestors. The trio are covered in mustard, sugar and ketchup, whilst Salter is also physically assaulted. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

In spite of all the suffering and hardship, protestors were soon rewarded. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 extended the rights of African-Americans considerably, and outlawed racial discrimination in the public sphere. Historian Robert Weems Jr. has suggested that the Civil Rights Act was passed by a white-dominated Congress due to the recognition of growing African-American economic power. White businessmen even admitted that they tried to force Congress’ hand to pass the act on the grounds of self-interest.

The official signing of the Civil Rights Act, c. 2 July 1964. Alongside President Lyndon B. Johnson (lower centre, looking up), is the prominent Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. (to the top right of Johnson). King had started his civil rights journey as the spiritual leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, which sparked the start of economic boycotts being used as a tool in the Civil Rights Movement.

The main motivation behind the passing of the Civil Rights Act was financial, not moral. However, African-Americans had achieved their aim of forcing social change through the exertion of their consumer power, primarily through not spending at certain businesses. Through acting collectively, African-Americans utilised consumerism effectively to advance their civil liberties in an inherently racist society.

By Miles Clayton

Miles is our resident blogger here at History Indoors. He is an a Final Year student studying Modern History at the University of Essex and researches the positive experiences of British children on the Home Front during the Second World War, with oral histories sitting at the heart of the research. If there are any questions you have on this topic that you would like to see answered, please post them in the comments section below and we will be happy to answer them!