Katherine Parkin. History of Retailing and Consumption. June 2020.
Those who sought to advance civil rights in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1960s did so amidst intense white resistance. Local and national measures met with unrelenting opposition and continual delay tactics by whites. One of the most visible actions taken by local Black residents was to assert economic pressure on local businesses and the government. As was true of the broader movement, it was a difficult decision for African American citizens of Birmingham to advance economic actions. Economic boycotts by civil rights groups not only angered whites, but also inspired many of them to create organizations like the Association for the Preservation of the White Race that engaged in counter boycotts of businesses and communities that acquiesced to Blacks’ demands for equality and fairness. Black boycotters also risked failure, or the appearance of failure, if they asserted economic power but the boycott had no palpable effect. As was true of all assertions of the right to equality, individuals who participated in boycotts knew that they could be threatened with bodily harm, loss of employment, and loss of housing. Participants also risked endangering loved ones. In spite of its risk, economic pressure was a powerful weapon to try to compel change.
The calls for boycotts were not new, with Americans first using the power of boycotts to reject the English overreach of power, which historian T.H. Breen characterized as a ‘brilliantly original American invention.’ Consumers have long understood their vital role in the American economy and sought to effect change through Consumer Leagues in the late nineteenth century and all manner of organizing in the 20th. For African Americans, as their financial position improved in the early twentieth century, they too began to see the ability to use economic resistance to improve their position. Monroe Friedman asserted that in the twentieth century, African Americans have been responsible for more consumer boycotts than all the other groups combined.’ Efforts to improve hiring emerged in the late 1920s, evolving in the 1930s into the ‘Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work’ campaign.
Writing in 1931, W.E.B. DuBois made the case that African Americans had latent clout and encouraged them to wield ‘“a mighty economic power.”’ By the 1940s, businesses nationally became increasingly aware of the financial might of African Americans, estimated to be about $12-15 billion dollars, a number continually asserted in business reports as equivalent to the purchasing power of the population of Canada. Moreover, the power of African Americans continued to grow. In April 1963, Ebony pegged Black spending power at $20 billion and recognized that it was used ‘to bargain for concessions in the field of civil and human rights.’ Not only did the financial might of African Americans strengthen, but so did their dominance as consumers. With more whites leaving cities, African Americans came to comprise a more significant portion of the urban consumer population, with one estimate maintaining that they made up a quarter of the population in 78 cities. This social and economic power was significant; as one columnist noted in Advertising Age in 1963, after nearly a decade of efforts to compel fair hiring practices and consumer rights, ‘Almost no American company has responded without pressure being brought to bear by the outside.’ By marshalling economic power, Black leaders had been able to flex their social and political muscles with white business and political leaders.
Among civil rights leaders, one of the biggest proponents of economic boycotts was Martin Luther King, Jr., dating notably to his work with the Montgomery Improvement Association and the women who organized the bus boycott. Boycott proponents believed that the best way to bring about change and to draw attention to injustices was to deprive white-owned companies of their money. Indeed, historian Ted Ownby notes that King called on bus boycott supporters ‘to refuse to shop at downtown stores and to save their Christmas-shopping money or give it to charity or the Montgomery Improvement Association.’ Ultimately, financial devastation of local businesses was not enough to stop white bigotry and it would take a Supreme Court ruling to integrate the buses. Other communities and businesses, similarly, would hold so true to their hatred that they could not be stopped by the threat of or actual financial ruin.
In spite of these limitations, King persisted in being a boycott proponent. No other strategies had proven to be entirely effective either, and he recognized the important attention that this economic approach brought to their efforts, including attracting supporters to join the cause. A 1960 Business Week article noted that King advocated that student protestors in Raleigh, North Carolina embrace a nationwide ‘selective buying’ campaign. Already by 1960, business analysts recognized that the civil rights movement sought to use economic pressure, along with sit ins, pickets, and general demonstrations, to try to gain equality and rights. Moreover, approaches varied from local quid-pro-quo efforts to much broader aims, such as raising awareness of differential treatment across the country.
In some communities that proved especially intransigent, such as Jackson, Mississippi, African Americans feared boycott actions would enflame the local white populations. Jackson passed ‘severe laws against such demonstrations’ and many African Americans feared ‘“antagonizing the white community,”’ but Medgar Evers and the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized a 1960 ‘boycott of all white businesses during the week before Easter.’ They called for the Black residents to make ‘“a human sacrifice in the cause of human dignity,” by celebrating Easter in old clothes, and buying only from Negro stores during the week.’ Targeting boycotts to the most significant buying periods of the calendar year also extended in 1962 to Macon, Georgia; Black residents launched a ‘Huge Boycott’ to protest the murder of a Black boy, A.C. Hall, by two white police officers who subsequently had been allowed back on the police force. Leaders of the effort evoked the Montgomery bus boycott to rally their followers, imploring them to not spend at Christmas and to use their spending power to send a strong political message.
While the economic approach picked up steam, an emerging strategy by the movement, which was both legal and strategic in its deployment, was to avoid using the word boycott. The 1961 ‘Philadelphia Selective Patronage Program sought to ‘inspire, and not alienate or antagonize, businesses to hire African Americans and keep activists impervious from prosecution.’ As historian Traci Parker notes, activists ‘consciously avoided using the word “boycott” and instead adopted the euphemism “selective patronage.”’ Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference modeled Operation Breadbasket in Chicago on selective buying the following year. Others, such as those protesting the Jackson, Mississippi Woolworth store that discriminated against African Americans, continued to call for boycotts. Two students carrying signs imploring shoppers to ‘Boycott Capitol Street—Buy Elsewhere’ found themselves arrested by white police officers on the charge of ‘obstructing the sidewalk,’ another tactic to impede protestors. Whatever the activists called it, the intention was the same: to use Black economic power to effect change.
One reason that boycotts were so appealing to the civil rights movement was that it was a democratic opportunity, allowing individuals and communities to demand change without depending, as Ownby noted, on ‘powerful leaders, outside protestors, student foot-soldiers, or people ready to go to prison.’ Truly, ‘Almost anyone could participate in a boycott.’ This action, although perhaps not as dramatic or visible as sit-ins and picketing, allowed for more supporters to quietly engage in meaningful action. For those seeking to effect change through non-violent means, it was also a productive action to engage the poor and unemployed, who may have been turning to violence. Historian August Meier contended that greater militancy in Birmingham, Alabama was, in part, a function of increasing militancy of the working class. He quoted activist Bayard Rustin saying about Birmingham, that it was a ‘black community [that] was welded into a classless revolt.’ Parker further contends that class and regional divisions nationally were bridged by boycotts, in part because they addressed what she characterizes as the ‘linked fate’ of African Americans. She defines ‘linked fate’ as ‘an acute sense of loyalty and awareness that the race’s economic enfranchisement was intimately tied to its members, and vice versa, thus stimulated both individual and collective political action.’ Their shared experience, all being treated as ‘second-class citizens in the marketplace,’ meant that African Americans all had motive to boycott businesses. It also reflected a great deal of connectivity amongst supporters and underlined the power of boycotting national or regional chains, because supporters, Black and white, could take action locally to help someone else in another community.
In the early 1960s, many of these initiatives were coming to a head in Alabama, after prolonged resistance by whites to any concessions of rights to Blacks. African Americans in Birmingham proved their early, quiet dedication to securing their rights by raising significant amounts of money under the leadership of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. In response to African Americans flexing their economic power and their political power by asserting the need to hire a Black police officer, violent whites had already responded by bombing Shuttleworth’s home and church. As African Americans in Birmingham began to make more demands, such as the ‘Request to desegregate lunch counters and remove racial signs from drinking fountains and restrooms’ in 1960, the whites of that city responded with physical and financial violence. The ‘Public safety commissioner,’ Eugene Connor, described by historian Robert Weems as having a ‘sadistic nature,’ ‘suspended the local ‘food program, 90% of which went to African Americans.’ African Americans persisted in seeking equality, holding a 1962 ‘Easter season boycott of discriminatory stores,’ which saw a 90 percent decline in sales.
The visible protests of adults and then the Children’s March in the streets in the spring of 1963 drew national attention, but also quietly transpiring in Birmingham was that ‘250,000 black citizens were not buying anything but food and medicine.’ White business leaders proved unwilling to make real change, even when it was reported that a year-long boycott of discriminating businesses had been 90 percent effective. While merchants did acquiesce to demands, it was often only temporary, until celebrities like Jackie Robinson and Floyd Patterson left town and the boycotts ended. In the Spring of 1963, racist whites accelerated their violence, intent on scaring African Americans into accepting the status quo. Already strongly associated with ‘more than 50 cross-burnings’ and bombings, the city’s concessions made after the local 1963 boycott led determined whites to place bombs that destroyed the home of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s brother Reverend A.D. King and the Gaston Motel, headquarters for civil rights leadership. Time magazine reported that the ‘segregation in Birmingham’s Christian churches is nearly as rigid as in public toilets’ and the city shut down its parks rather than integrate them; civil rights leaders confronted the ‘toughest segregation town in the South.’ The mayor’s office noted that in July and August, the city had pushed their ‘budget to the bursting point’ by purchasing ‘riot guns, revolvers, ammunition, and tear gas grenades,’ to help equip the police that had been in ‘constant training on crowd control and riot techniques.’
On the subject of school desegregation in Birmingham there were no concessions or compliance with the law whatsoever. Only about two weeks after Martin Luther King shared his dream of equality at the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,’ the first Black child in Alabama, six-year-old Sonnie Hereford IV, backed by a federal court order, attended a previously all-white school in Huntsville. The following day, September 10, in response to Gov. George Wallace deploying the Alabama State Troopers and National Guard to defend segregation, President Kennedy used federalized national guard troops to ensure that five students in Birmingham could integrate the city’s schools. The majority of the white students filed out in protest.
Less than a week later, incensed at having to integrate Birmingham schools, hateful whites bombed a church on a Sunday morning, killing four young girls and badly injuring others. This action, planting 15 sticks of dynamite, was not accidental or isolated. It was the 28th unsolved bombing of African American homes, churches, and businesses in the city, and was the third since the city’s school desegregation began September 4. Robert E. Chambliss and his accomplices created and set the bombs, while the governor, city officials, and the white community condoned the violence. The September 15 bombing, the first to kill, was not met with remorse by the white citizens of Birmingham. In the afternoon, in the immediate aftermath of the morning bombing, segregation proponents held a rally of white students and adults ‘protesting the desegregation of three Birmingham schools.’ Two white teen-aged boys, leaving the rally, fired a pistol at two Black boys riding a bicycle, ‘killing a thirteen-year-old perched on the handlebars.’ And in another incident, as the police dispersed a group of Black and white boys engaged in throwing rocks at cars and each other, a police officer killed a fleeing Black boy ‘by shooting him in the back of the head.’ Even as African Americans combed through the rubble of the church and cleaned up blood and bodies, new threats of bombings terrorized the community. The next day, two local area schools being integrated received bomb threats. A week and a half later two more bombs detonated, the second ‘one of them was filled with shrapnel, calculated to maim and kill those who went out into the street’ after the first one exploded at one o’clock in the morning. Their homes and churches that had offered solace and strength in the face of daily racism and abuse were now sites of violence. Six children were dead.
Killing young Black people was not an accident; in fact, they were the target of the violence. The 16th St. Baptist Church had been at the center of the Children’s March months earlier, giving the children both strength and support in organizing their brave actions, so the site of the bombing was purposeful. For some, these murders were a culmination of a national despair dating back most recently to the lynchings of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 and 23-year-old Mack Parker in 1959, and now six Black children, all under the age of 16, wantonly murdered by whites. The collective caution about jeopardizing possible legal progress in the courts or in the court of public opinion evaporated and demands for action rang out. In bringing their violence to bear on young victims, the killers had the dual effect of martyring the children as innocents and mobilizing a movement against indefensible hate. The reaction to the violence was far reaching, with mass protests of thousands occurring in cities across the country.
The murders inspired the formation of the Committee of Artists and Writers, which immediately publicized a march through Greenwich Village and held a memorial service at Town Hall in New York City, noting in the New York Times that the proceeds from the collection would ‘be used to buy gravestones for the six victims.’ They called for the 23rd of September to be held ‘as a day of mourning,’ replete with mourning armbands and prayer vigils. They did so fearful that if this tragedy did not ‘awaken more people to the civil rights cause,’ that Black Americans would despair or reach the conclusion that they had to meet violence with violence. Anne Moody who had lived with death threats while she pursued voter registration in Mississippi wrote of the attack in her autobiography,
The church bombing had had a terrible effect on me. It had made me question everything I had ever believed in. ‘There has got to be another way for us,’ I thought. ‘If not, then there is no end to the misery we are now encountering.’
Echoing her question of whether nonviolence was working, a New York City man ‘replied: “Would you turn the other cheek after something like that?”’ The group, which nearly immediately renamed itself the Association of Artists for Freedom called, in a front-page New York Times story, for a ‘nationwide campaign against Christmas shopping to protest the killing of six children.’ They sought to take action and effect change before it was too late and the seemingly endless violence and hate of whites was met with violence by heartbroken and angry African Americans.
In our historical memory, aided by documentaries and historical accounts, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and the murder of ‘4 Little Girls’ is the story. It is likely that those seeking sympathy for the cause of justice simplified the narrative to ensure their martyrdom. Innocent children are most easily believed when young and female, and keeping the focus on the four girls killed in church on a Sunday morning both simplified things and ensured maximum outrage. Three of the four girls were fourteen years old, which in another context would not be considered ‘little,’ and especially not when describing boys. A Washington Post article the following day, for example, headlined ‘Six Dead After Church Bombing,’ described the two boys,
City police shot a 16-year-old Negro to death when he refused to heed their commands to halt after they caught him stoning cars. A 13-year-old Negro boy was shot and killed as he rode his bicycle in a suburban area north of the city.
The fourth girl, Carol Denise McNair was 11, so the second youngest child murdered was 13—and a boy. As the dust settled and they began to clear away the death and destruction, the image, reported again and again was that ‘The only stained-glass window in the church that remained in its frame showed Christ leading a group of little children. The face of Christ was blown out.’ Although civil rights supporters highlighted four church-going girls rhetorically to build sympathy for their cause, newspaper accounts and those seeking support for the Christmas Boycott consistently reported on six dead children in Birmingham.
The six murders that took place that day illustrate the deep and significant problems facing African Americans in Birmingham and across the country. In communities that continued to refuse to employ African American police officers, the police continued to hold the same absolute, allied power as vigilante whites. At times, the police were one and the same as the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils. Young Black people growing up in this period of intense turmoil and danger described the dread of not knowing if they were going to die on any given day. Franklin McCain, one of the four students to sit-in at the Greensboro Woolworths, pointed to the trauma of Emmett Till’s death in shaping his conviction that he had to do something. White community leaders generally condoned the murders of Black children, and even when they did seek their assailants or even more rarely prosecuted them, they generally did not convict whites for assaults, sexual assaults, or murders, or give them commensurate sentences. Moreover, legal tactics condoned police violence, which continued to be a key concern in 1963.
The Association of Artists for Freedom had been living, writing, and contending with the power of white supremacy and anticipated the response of Birmingham. Those in the local Birmingham community responded not just by murdering two young boys in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, but also by further policing Black lives. The local paper reported ‘23 Negroes Arrested’ and ‘Birmingham police and sherriff’s deputies, dressed in hard hats and carrying carbines, moved into the vicinity of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church yesterday to keep order’ as they investigated the blast. Just as Ida B. Wells used Chicago’s newspaper accounts to ascertain what whites reported as the legal basis for lynchings, one Birmingham newspaper reported that ‘Most of the arrested Negroes were charged with either being drunk or failing to obey an officer.’ There were no reports of any whites being arrested. Another newspaper account detailed the hundreds of dazed, dusty, blood soaked African Americans in the streets after the blast and revealed that the ‘police dispersed them by firing shotguns over their heads.’ In ‘2 Negroes Killed in Incidents Here’ another article blithely reported that the police officers ordered the group of Blacks allegedly ‘throwing rocks at cars loaded with white teen-agers’ to halt, ‘An officer fired a shotgun loaded with buckshot at the legs of the group,’ and ‘struck Robinson, knocking him to the ground.’ There was no suggestion that the police officer, Jack Parker, who murdered the 16-year old Johnny Robinson be charged or arrested. Papers did, however, report ‘An arrest order was issued’ for two white teenagers who shot and killed Virgil Ware, 13.
While the AAF members might have been surprised to learn that local Birmingham leaders, including half of the signers of the April letter asserting that the actions of King and his non-violent marches and boycotts were ‘Unwise and Untimely,’ came together to fundraise after the bombing, they would not have been surprised by the outcomes of their fundraising. Community fundraisers initially intended some of the money they raised go to the 16th St. Baptist Church. When they discovered that the church was covered by insurance, they made the decision to provide $4,000 to the sister of bomb victim, Addie Mae Collins, herself a survivor of the bomb and the person most badly injured in the attack. Sarah Collins was photographed and featured in Life magazine with bandages covering her eyes, glass shards had ripped her skin, embedded in one eye, and cost her sight in the other one. This donation, however, was dwarfed by one two and half times larger, to a white youth who suffered only minor wounds. Following the bombing of the African American church, a local white radio host and segregationist raised nearly $11,000 for a white teen who was hit by a brick, and released from the hospital after 10 days with only a $960 bill. They paid for some dental work and gave his parents $3,000, putting the remaining $5,900 on deposit for his family. Expressing sympathy for a white impoverished family, funds helped his family with bills, but there was no such humanitarian consideration for African American families devastated by the bomb. Moreover, this affirmation of whiteness while continuing to disregard the suffering of African Americans meant that little would change in this city.
To date, there had not been one murder, one act of violence, one action by an individual or an institution that had galvanized white support for civil rights. The reckoning with Emmett Till’s mutilated body galvanized Black support for civil rights in the mid-1950s, but even in the Black community, support for civil rights action was slow to build. In seeking to compel change in Birmingham, King and others had at first allowed and then encouraged galvanized young people to participate in marches in what came to be known as the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. Whites watched on television as protesting Black children as young as eight years old were arrested and sent to jail, with no contact with anyone, including their parents, for days. When the criticisms did come, they were directed toward civil rights leaders who ‘used’ children to peacefully protest, instead of the racist whites of Birmingham who not only discriminated against all Black people and mandated segregated schools, but also condoned jailing over a thousand Black children, with bail initially set between $500 and $750; attacking them with dogs; turning powerful fire hoses against them; locking hundreds in the 16th St. Baptist church; expelling them from school; and threatening their parents with charges of ‘delinquency of a minor,’ which was ‘a felony punishable by a long jail term.’
Writing about moderate whites’ disapproval of civil rights tactics in his April 1963 ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ Martin Luther King, Jr. characterized himself as ‘gravely disappointed’ in whites’ continued reluctance to support African Americans’ quest for justice. He charged the apathetic white response, including the clergy, as a greater ‘stumbling block’ than the white supremacists because, he contended, they hinder progress by stating: ‘“I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels that he can set the time-table for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”’
If innocent children could be condemned and brutalized, then there was no one who could effectively protest. Moreover, according to the critics, there seemed to be no good time to protest. Whenever the most mythical, convenient season was to protest, most critics absolutely did not think it was the Christmas season, a time of joyful giving. Yet that is what was proposed in the days immediately after the murders: a Christmas Boycott. And again, children were at the center of the debate. Should Black children be denied Santa Claus to advance the cause of civil rights? With President Kennedy refusing to send federal troops to Birmingham, suggesting nine years after the Brown v. Board of Ed decision that integration was a ‘“slow, step-by-step” procedure’ and that ‘“progress is being made at about the right tempo,”’ and urging people ‘to keep their nerve,’ the Association of Artists for Freedom (AAF), led by John O. Killens, James Baldwin, Odetta, Louis Lomax, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis, sought to take a leadership role.
In addition to raising $762 to help pay for the burials (over $6000 value today), the Committee condemned the murder of children as unchristian and demanded a national response. The organization proclaimed the first national no-spending Christmas Boycott. Instead of the more traditional quid-pro-quo boycott that sought to exact demands of a company or a community, or to direct consumers to Black-owned businesses or to businesses that ostensibly treated Black consumers as equals, this boycott sought to use financial angst to compel a reckoning with racial justice writ large nationally.
Ultimately the Christmas boycott, advanced by northern, urban, secular intellectuals, celebrated artists and writers of their day, was unable to win the approval of the southern, nearly exclusively male, religious organizational Civil Right leaders and their newly formed Council for United Civil Rights Leadership (CUCRL). Although King initially supported the endeavor, as did the National Council of Negro Women, a ‘Negro woman’s organization of three million members,’ skeptics struggled with the anticipated backlash over their ‘methods of direct action’ and found themselves divided on strategy. While some considered calling for a ‘black Christmas’ in their local communities, many wondered about the feasibility of doing so on the national stage. After years of struggle, southern, religious groups believed their hard-fought successes unfolded from small, local strategies pinned to tangible aims. In the internal political struggles of the CUCRL, some also shared a fear that if their organization was not spearheading an action, then they risked being followers of another leader or group. Finding unity in identity or action continually proved elusive.
The AAF, which largely operated outside of the traditional civil rights groups, imagined a larger conversation and shift in behavior, perhaps building on the kinds of public scrutiny and international attention generated by Frederick Douglass’s anti-slavery campaigns and Ida B. Wells’s anti-lynching campaigns. Beyond shining the light on discrimination and violence in the South, the creative leaders imagined those in the West, the Midwest, and the North also being forced to confront their own racism and the institutionalized ways that racism pervaded the nation.
For these writers, actors, and singers, their own careers had been intimately connected to their efforts to pursue social justice. In her study of blacklisting, Cynthia Meyers notes that Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were two of the nearly one thousand names that advertising giant J. Walter Thompson checked before hiring for their Kraft Television Theatre in the early 1950s. While some critics might have imagined these popular Broadway stars as ‘above the fray,’ their experiences of being shut out of employment based on signing a petition to prevent the execution of Willie McGee or being accused of having given a talk to a group made them vulnerable as African Americans.
Their activism also made them intimately aware of those injustices, both in New York City and across the country. The NAACP’s The Crisis reported in March 1963 that nationally, in 17 states and Washington DC, only 200,000 children attended integrated schools, while three million remained locked outside of the promise made by Brown v. Board of Ed. ten years earlier. They imagined an entire nation bringing pressure to bear on discrimination and inequality in their communities, aided by the same kind of international shame that Douglass and Wells capitalized on in helping to compel the nineteenth century American response to the injustices of slavery and lynching. One supportive article in a white newspaper suggested that the boycott was called ‘to awaken America’s conscience … and business people will exert pressure to end racial inequality and terrorism.’ Historian Jeanne Theoharis argued that the country imagined ‘racial injustice as a regional sickness rather than a national malady,’ and King and Baldwin and others had taken to the road to solicit support for their work and force audiences to confront their own complacency and prejudicial behavior. In 1963, King responded to the question of what people in Los Angeles could do for Birmingham with a challenge. He said, ‘The most important thing you can do is to set Los Angeles free because you have segregation and discrimination here, and police brutality.’ Baldwin had a similar reaction in Los Angeles and when he traveled with a documentary film crew to San Francisco the young men he met believed that the largely invisible discrimination they faced in jobs, housing, and schooling were just as damaging as the more overt conditions facing the South. Baldwin said, in the Spring of 1963,
There is no moral distance … between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham. There is no moral distance … between President Kennedy and Bull Connor because the same machine put them both in power. Someone’s got to tell it like it is. And that’s where it’s at.
At a fundamental level, it seemed to the AAF that a national response was needed for a national crisis.
In the week after the Birmingham church bombing and shootings, tens of thousands of Black and white Americans took to the street to protest the killings, with 10,000 marching to Lafayette Square (DC), more than 13,000 marching across New York City, and 6,000 Bostonians marching and raising $2,000 to help rebuild the 16th St Baptist church. Small cities across the nation, too, marked the occasion with memorial services and marches, including Fort Wayne, Tucson, and Omaha. Headlines across the country captured the heartache and disbelief, like the one in The Boston Globe that cried out: ‘O, My God! They’ve Killed Our Children.’ White, nationally-syndicated columnist Drew Pearson’s columns in the subsequent weeks drew a stark picture for readers, laying the blame squarely on Alabama Governor Wallace, when he proclaimed: ‘His defiance of law encouraged hate bombers’ and that Wallace should witness the bombed church and kneel there before the shattered Jesus and seek forgiveness. In his September 20 column he wrote, ‘The broken bodies of their children, the broken church, the broken stained glass windows they had saved so long to buy … Now their crumpled bodies lay mute on bloodstained sheets … .’ On September 30, following more bombings, he challenged Birmingham’s assertion and that of Gov. Wallace that they could persist in segregation in their state, with ‘no interference from outsiders.’ He reminded readers nationally, ‘Birmingham has become the most bombed city since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.’ The despair and the subsequent resolve by Blacks and whites nationally to do something was palpable. The artists offered themselves up to the cause, writing to the major civil rights organizations and offering ‘to speak anywhere in the country in behalf of the movement,’ with the intention of advancing a Christmas Boycott.
In calling a national Christmas Boycott, the AAF was ideally located in New York City, home to many corporations’ national headquarters. While the pattern of targeting local businesses with local protests made sense, there was also strength in being able to confront ‘the most important northern spokesmen for the business community’ in the north, as the movement had already recognized in targeting department store chains like Woolworths. Pearson offered an additional incentive to a national approach. He countered Birmingham’s desire for insularity by exposing the city as a ‘company town dominated by remote control by the steel moguls in Pittsburgh and New York.’ In 1963, there was a heightened awareness that Birmingham’s businesses, both industrial and commercial, were part of a much larger national economy that could be made to feel economic and moral pressure.
The AAF likely responded to the murders in Birmingham with a national response, too, as they recognized the local need for equal rights, reading near-daily reports of civil rights activism within New York City itself. Historian Steven Gelber observed that ‘an important vanguard of the black equal employment movement emerged in the North in the early 1960s,’ in response to issues like unemployment and workplace discrimination. A series of boycotts and selective buying campaigns in New York City met with heated white resistance, including white mothers who objected to integrating city schools and ‘members of a neo-Nazi group, the National Resistance Party’ throwing rocks and food and attacking a ‘group of white and black CORE protestors in the summer of 1963 boycott of White Castle restaurants’. Moreover, as engaged intellectuals, reading and traveling widely, they knew too that cities and communities across the nation, including Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles were plagued by the same racism and discrimination. The AAF members knew, as King did, that racial hatred and inequality were not only southern problems. They were, indeed, American problems and they believed that the country was in a crisis.
Part of that crisis and another reason that these artists advanced the national Christmas Boycott was a growing conviction that things were moving too slowly. The glacial pace of change and the callous disregard for justice evidenced by politicians, the FBI, and local police in Birmingham, in Alabama, and at the Federal level, and especially including the President, made them despair of any progress anywhere. They feared that the endless, building frustrations and appeals of leaders, including Malcolm X, would lead some to embrace violence in response to atrocities. In coverage of the church bombing, a relative of the youngest victim who was ‘Eleven years old,’ reflected: ‘You know how I feel? I feel like blowing the whole town up.’ Clarence Jones, attorney to both King and the AAF, was reported by the FBI to have said that the feeling in the South is a ‘crisis in the efficacy of non-violent movement.’ Even John Oliver Killens, speaking before King at the joint funeral for three of the girls, ‘objected to the philosophy of nonviolence.’ In church, before the mourners, he proclaimed, ‘Negroes must be prepared to protect themselves with guns.’ Although he did not advocate armed insurrection, merely self defense against a hateful white population, it was reflective of the kind of building frustration and foreshadowing of those who did not think they could hold onto nonviolence in the face of murdering children. But these artists sought to advance the Christmas boycott to offer hope of a national conversation and subsequent non-violent action to ensure racial equality and fairness, in jobs, in schools, in housing, in American life.
The AAF had another reason for optimism in their strategy. In addition to the potential for momentum following the March on Washington and the outright despair following the murder of the six children, there was a national realization by both whites and Blacks that finding support for a national boycott was possible and could be effective. In the immediate weeks after the Birmingham murders, a research firm investigating the consumer behavior of African Americans offered strong evidence, reported on in newspapers and magazines nationally, of what the AAF and others already intuited. Black Americans across the country, energized by ‘linked fate’ and the incredible violence born out of places like Birmingham, were not only ready to take action, they already had. In a summary, the report concluded, ‘Negroes are engaged in intensive, individual efforts to influence policies of stores and companies by exercising their economic power.’ In fact, the president of the research firm reported, almost every Negro interviewed had, at some time during the past few years, engaged in a ‘selective buying’ program. He estimated that ‘30 to 40 per cent of the Negro population is engaged in unorganized economic boycotts.’ While much of the boycott activity was individual, based upon personal experience, blacks also favored the opportunity ‘for the first time to act in concert against companies distributing on a national scale.’ In fact, in the 17 October 1963 issue of Jet, the company reported ‘about 89 percent of the nation’s Negro population stand ready to take part in any boycott whenever and wherever it is called by one of their national leaders.’ The President of the research firm characterized it as ‘one of the most significant phenomena in marketing history.’ The Black community was ready to act; leaders knew they could count not only on their interest, but also their support. An Advertising Age article noted that negligent white businesses could be in for a ‘Rude Awakening’ when boycotters ‘act in concert against companies distributing on a national scale.’
Of course, vital to any effort to effect social change through boycotts is the ability to communicate with and organize supporters. While the seven most prominent, aligned civil rights groups had seemingly endless power in their ability to communicate directly with their communities, through the pulpit, church bulletins, organizational organs, Black newspapers, and Black magazines, James Baldwin and his allies found themselves at a distinct disadvantage. In the first article calling for the boycott they noted that they ‘planned to advertise the campaign by poster and automobile stickers.’ In a televised news conference regarding the Christmas boycott, Bayard Rustin joined Baldwin and held up a handmade armband of black mourning cloth embroidered with the words ‘Birmingham children,’ imploring people to wear them. Seeking ways to circumvent resistant publishers and organizations, this proved to be an inauspicious approach. Compounding the problems, Time magazine had declared just a few months earlier that Baldwin, who graced the cover, was ‘not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Negro leader.’ Moreover, Martin Luther King Jr. was reported to have said in the FBI surveillance records, just before the bombing, that Baldwin was ‘not a civil rights leader.’ Speaking at a memorial for the children on the 25th of September, Baldwin asserted his own remarks as those of an individual, but ultimately he came to assert himself, along with other non-leaders, as a moral leader, declaring ‘Americans “have no right to celebrate Christmas this year.”’
Through their celebrity, the Artists hoped to bring headlines and support to their cause of freedom. Building on his New Yorker article, which he developed into his book The Fire Next Time, Baldwin used his national speaking tour, reaching high school and college students, to give them ‘as true a version of your history as I can.’ He challenged whites to consider why they accepted Black athletes and artists, but would not welcome Blacks ‘in our homes, and not in our neighborhoods, and not in our churches.’ Baldwin hoped by engaging with each other and confronting their past, that whites could move toward acceptance of Blacks as equals. However, as with all the other civil rights tactics, whites found it easier to talk than to reform, and they did not find it easy to listen. One Boston college-student columnist in asserting a ‘law of diminishing returns’ framed the context as one in which ‘most Americans are becoming downright tired of the continuous parade of news items concerning civil rights.’ While acknowledging that previously there had been ‘too little written and spoken on the subject,’ as well as ‘too little participation by whites and Negroes,’ he noted that the risk now was that too much was ‘being heard, said, and done.’
The effort to stage a Christmas Boycott, even with celebrity figures offering attractive copy and support, was an uphill battle. White publishers rarely reported on the boycott; so, too, did the Black publishers prove reluctant to engage in stories and advertisements concerning the Christmas Boycott. They were loath to cover the Christmas boycott which had not just the potential, but the goal of reducing consumer spending and thereby discouraging valuable advertising dollars. Publishers largely proved unwilling to even engage in publishing dialogue regarding the merits of the Boycott because to do so jeopardized their financial standing by alienating advertisers. The leading publisher of African American publications, John H. Johnson, dismissed the call for a boycott as senseless and coming from ‘a very small segment of the civil rights movement,’ and further characterized it as having ‘little chance of being put into effect.’ As Weems notes, Johnson had nearly single-handedly led white corporations to safely invest in the Black market, revealing that ‘Ebony’s advertising revenue nearly tripled between 1962 and 1969.’ Indeed, another critic contends that ‘Johnson’s magazine [Negro Digest] at times made light of, frequently downplayed, and intentionally sidestepped passionate discussions on racial justice, civil rights, and historic discrimination.’ While there were brief, occasional mentions of the Boycott in the Black press, such as a December tidbit in Jet, quoting Baldwin’s support with the most banal ‘this Christmas shall come from our hearts and minds, not from our pocketbooks … ,’ the fraught conversation was almost entirely missing from the pages of leading magazines and white-owned newspapers. Indeed, those omissions were not accidental, but part of a continual erasure of the experiences of African Americans, effected by standing agreements of newspapers like the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press to ‘not cover issues of police brutality.’
There is also evidence that through a combination of willful ignorance and profound misunderstanding of their community’s race relations, department stores did not believe the boycott of Christmas would occur in their city. In an early October article in the Women’s Wear Daily, leading business leaders across the country weighed in to dismiss the boycott. In New York, Samuel O. May, president of the Diana Stores Company, ‘doubted such action would accomplish much,’ while in Jacksonville, Florida, another retailer was disbelieving that his community would be hit with a boycott when ‘race relations have been “singularly smooth” during the past few years,’ even though just three years earlier whites had brutally attacked Blacks peacefully demonstating for civil rights with ax handles. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, too, found retailers skeptical about the potential of a ‘boycott because of the good racial relationship that exists.’ And even Birmingham believed they would be immune to a Christmas Boycott, because in spite of what was characterized as a history of ‘weekly sales setbacks,’ retailers continued to imagine ‘a lot of deferred buying power’ that ‘will explode into spending, and soon.’
Most critics of the Christmas boycott argued that the boycott would hurt children. Newspaper and magazine stories abounded with the story framed, like one in Jet, around the question: ‘Should Negroes Boycott Santa Claus?’ NAACP leader Roy Wilkins characterized it as a blow to children, ‘already brutalized by segregation’ who would be further deprived ‘by denying them the annual joys of a Christmas tree and toys.’ James Baldwin responded that parents should ‘tell the children on Christmas morning that “Santa didn’t come because your brothers and sisters were killed in Birmingham by your co-citizens …”’ A defender of the boycott questioned ‘how many Negro children are accustomed to lavish Christmas gifts?’ and asserted that the boycott would not ‘seriously damage the psyche of a Negro child.’ In truth, the AAF was asking that all children & communities bear the sacrifices, not just those in Birmingham facing down guns and dogs and bombs and jail time. They were calling attention to the continued discrimination and segregation plaguing the country. Still, some of the simplest rebuttals to these aims came in Christmas-morning imagery, contrasting an adorned tree and wrapped gifts with language of bombs and hatred. One editorial characterized it as a ‘Strike against Santa Claus.’
Instead of supporting the boycott outright, civil rights organizations used the idea of withholding spending money on Christmas to advance the idea that committed Americans could donate unspent money to their organizations. For example, an article detailing the NAACP’s rejection of the Christmas Boycott in November of 1963 featured an ad, encouraging readers of their magazine The Crisis to ‘Say “Merry Christmas” By Giving an NAACP Membership to a Friend.’ The opening cover of the same issue featured images of young children, followed by a plea to buy young people (13 and younger) a ‘Junior Life Membership’ to the NAACP. It implored, ‘As parents you provide them with religious, educational and social guidance. Unfortunately, you must also arm them against racial prejudice.’ The cost was $100, which adjusted to today’s value would be over $800. The NAACP did encourage African Americans and white civil rights supporters to forego Christmas presents in favor of advancing civil rights through their organization but would not sign on to a national boycott of Christmas spending. Some critics of the boycott did not miss the opportunity to criticize civil rights groups and individuals such as Martin Luther King as ‘more interested in publicity’ than in practical help.
Others called for differentiated local boycotts targeted to bigots and particular businesses, contrasting them to the ‘undifferentiation’ in a ‘nation-wide Christmas boycott.’ The press is filled with stories of communities from Atlanta to Milwaukee to Los Angeles holding or threatening to hold Christmas Boycotts in the fall of 1963, with the language part of the national zeitgeist and organizers hoping to tap into both the supporters and those fearful of the action. Organizers, most commonly the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), sought familiar aims, such as one that sought ‘20 per cent of the temporary holiday jobs’ for Blacks and to punish ‘retail stores that practice discrimination.’ Jackson, Mississippi, long a racist stronghold, celebrated ‘a “Black Christmas” in memory of the assassination of NAACP leader Medgar Evers and President Kennedy.’ African Americans in Jackson honored their fight for freedom by achieving ‘a 100 per cent boycott and blackout of Christmas.’ JET magazine reported in January that efforts brought Black Jackson residents ‘a news sense of determination to continue the selective buying campaign until complete respect and human dignity come.’
Few opponents believed the AAF’s national Christmas Boycott could be successfully organized in the tight timeframe between the murders in mid-September and the December 25th holiday. The most significant opponent to the boycott was the Executive Secretary of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins. He immediately sought to squash King’s proposal based on his skepticism of its feasibility. He warned that ‘no organization had ever been able to demonstrate the effectiveness of a large-scale boycott,’ emphasizing that if local boycotts were not effective, then certainly a national one would be impossible to pull off. He also maintained that the NAACP board was not scheduled to meet until January, so even had he wanted to, he could not have secured support for the cause. And finally, he mischaracterized the aims of the boycott, by suggesting that ‘a “shotgun” boycott’ ‘would not have any effect directly on the Birmingham situation,’ purposefully distorting the group’s aims with the types of more tangible actions the civil rights movement had been pursuing. In spite of facing challenges within the NAACP from those who sought more direct action, Wilkins persisted in reflecting a conservative and wary approach to the boycott and led the way in crushing its potential support from other leading civil rights organizations.
Some also argued that without the promise of exact measures, leaders would be unable ascertain if the boycott was working, and consequently (and with incredible optimism that it would end racism nationally) wouldn’t know when to stop. Instead of trying to develop parameters to define a successful boycott, most critics turned to dismissing it out of hand. As one letter writer published in the New York Times opined, after acknowledging a need for action, ‘But the aim of this form of campaign is misguided.’ They continued with a litany of explanations as to why: ‘guilt by association,’ ‘trading on irrational feelings’ ‘hurt economically the innocent as well as the guilty,’ and what was surely a clincher for many, ‘reminiscent of seventeenth-century Puritan intolerance.’ Finally, critics of the idea condemned the idea of cutting off financial support for businesses that did employ Blacks (perhaps after earlier boycotts achieved those gains) or were in fact Black businesses. They wanted to avoid hurting ‘good’ and ‘bad’ companies equally; the amorphous quality of the boycott’s targets and goals left many fearful. One California newspaper editorial characterized the boycott as a ‘petulant gesture’ that would ‘help no one.’
Even longstanding supporters of civil rights aims blasted the call for a national boycott as extreme. Male African American leaders pushed beyond Wilkins’s public contention that it could not be organized and effective to assert that it was reckless. Samuel Dewitt Proctor, president of A&T college in Greensboro, North Carolina condemned the proposal in a speech, noting ‘we don’t use a cannonball to kill a mosquito and we don’t drown a baby to keep him from crying.’ With the goal of avoiding ‘unnecessary excesses’ and achieving the ‘least animosity,’ Proctor and other critics criticized the effort as potentially doing more harm than good. Ralph Bunche, winner of the Nobel peace prize, speaking to college students in Tougaloo, Mississippi dismissed the boycott as ‘ridiculous.’ White, male columnists also joined the chorus of critics, with Peter Edson characterizing advocates as ‘the more aggressive Negro leaders,’ while acknowledging that the patience of leaders who had ‘acted responsibly and respectably’ might not continue if Congress would not pass a civil rights bill. Finally, some critics harangued the Association members in no uncertain terms. A Philadelphia Tribune columnist castigated the boycott idea as a ‘“grandstand play” by those who tend to exercise shallow judgment of the overall relevant needs of the mass of the country’s Negro Community.’ Moreover, he alleged that the Artists could easily call for other people to forego employment opportunities and gifts when they could easily command thousands of dollars for speaking engagements or the books they wrote, making every day for them ‘Christmas Day.’ For many critics, the call for national boycott was, like all of the civil rights movement, ‘disruptive and unpopular.’
Still, in spite of these many voices of objection, the Association of Artists for Freedom persisted in advocating for a Christmas Boycott. They ran ads in the Black newspaper The Illustrated News, created by Albert Cleage Jr. and devoted to political involvement. One ad featured two young children in front of a fireplace, with stockings hung from the mantle. They were stuffed with promise and the names on each stocking bore ‘The Profoundest Gift’: Respect, Love, Inspiration, Self-Confidence, Discipline. The text of the ad reflects the erudite authors of the group and was explicit about the violence underlying the boycott. It explained that the Association supported the boycott because
Thousands of atrocities committed against humanity and the Negro people … have gone unpunished … throwing bombs in the Holy Place of God; blasting the brains of His children against the high walls of His Tabernacle in Birmingham; turning His day of days into a sabbath ritual of blood and destruction. We are guilty. Not only those who planted the bomb, but those who condone injustice and segregation and thereby give it sanction; those who profit from it and those who do not work to eradicate it.
They also reiterated that they were trying to prevent what Martin Luther King, Jr. portended to President Kennedy, when he wired him in the immediate aftermath of the bombing: ‘unless “immediate Federal steps are taken” there will be in “Birmingham and Alabama the worst racial holocaust this Nation has ever seen.”’ The AAF used rhetorical language to connect the past and present, remembering ‘the murder of our tender six of Birmingham, with the fervent determination that it will never be sixty, or six hundred, six thousand, or another six million.’ Another ad encouraging readers to support the Christmas Boycott, supported by The Group on Advanced Leadership, juxtaposed a photograph of an adorable Black little girl with line drawings of a bombed church and six coffins, each inscribed with the name of one of the dead Birmingham children. With these visually arresting images, supporters tried to build support for the boycott.
Through the Black press like the Illustrated News and the Afro-American, the AAF, with the support of the Brooklyn CORE, continued to make appeals to support the Boycott. They were joined in their efforts by Harlem Representative Adam Clayton Powell, who was an early, strong supporter of the initiative. An editorial cartoon appearing the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (Alaska) in October of 1963 featured a large, white Santa Claus with a bag of ‘Christmas Giving’ hoisted over his shoulder, but angrily looking at his backside, which was covered with two shoeprints featuring the names King and Powell. Titled ‘How Not to Gain Friends,’ the cartoon underlined how isolated the Christmas Boycott adherents may have seemed, and effectively ignored the AAF members as leaders in the effort. In early November, Powell challenged the inevitability of The Council for United Civil Rights Leadership’s rejection of the boycott, given that they only represented about ‘5 per cent of the Negro.’ Powell maintained that ‘90 per cent or 12 million Negroes in the country had not been reached by the black revolution.’ He held a meeting of ‘approximately 40 organizations representing about a million persons,’ including the Elks, Masons, and various other leaders of other African American groups that had ‘committed themselves to the social revolution for civil rights’ and made two significant pushes. The first was to challenge the male dominance of the civil rights groups and was able to encourage them to add the National Council of Negro Women and the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs into their leadership conferences. The second push was not successful, which was to secure support for the Christmas Boycott.
King also failed to get a commitment to support the Boycott, but he and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) persisted in believing in the boycott. Seeking a compromise, they included the ‘SCLC’s Christmas Plan’ in their November-December Newsletter. It advocated that their members participate, but offered a range of plans, from Minimal Participation, which only required a ‘special gift to civil rights struggle, church of your choice or favorite charity’ to Maximum Participation … which was, in effect, the Christmas Boycott. It required ‘No Christmas tree, no cards, no decorations, no gifts, etc.’ Most profoundly, in making the appeal for memorial donations, the newsletter included an ‘In Memoriam’ section that called out the names of the dead, ‘Lest we forget Birmingham and Dallas.’ After the six children, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Virgil Ware, and Johnnie Robinson, the memoriam listed John F. Kennedy. He was not first, his font was not bigger, and he was not distinguished as a greater loss. In his ‘Epitaph and Challenge’ headlining the Newsletter, which had a photo of the late President centered, King asserted that the children and the President, and others, were killed ‘by a morally inclement climate.’ He maintained that the nation was complicit by the ‘attempt to cure the cancer of racial injustice with the vaseline of graduation.’ The grief of all the murders was a manifestation of the profound sickness of racism and King heralded a call to action.
Ultimately, in spite of the ideals advanced by the nation, most white Americans persisted in denying that there was ever a convenient season to use economic boycotts to protest racial injustice. In the notes of appreciation that the grieving girls’ families sent to those who reached out to acknowledge their daughter’s murders, the McNair family stood out for their concluding note: ‘May God give you courage to continue to speak out against injustices to mankind.’ While the girls were innocents, never seeking to martyr themselves, the McNairs ultimately recognized, as did so many African Americans, that unwittingly they were part of the larger civil rights struggle. In large part, that was because whites continued to stake out racist and segregationist positions, holding fast to an ideology of white supremacy. The Episcopalian Diocese of Alabama’s efforts to raise money to help rebuild the 16th St. Baptist church and care for those hospitalized in the blast elicited two envelopes filled with Confederate money.
This overtly racist response paralleled the city’s response, when they discovered that the white teen who had been slightly injured had a family with ‘special needs,’ they decided to ‘pay their utility bills for them during the cold months’ and anticipated the remaining money ($550) being diverted through the First Methodist Church, so they could ‘continue to work with them as occasion demands,’ all while knowing about the existence of another fund for him with over ten thousand dollars. Meanwhile, the widowed mother of Johnny Robinson, murdered by the police, received no aid from anyone, beyond the burial costs, and was eventually institutionalized, leaving her other children orphaned. In February 1964, George Murray, the Bishop Coadjutor, signed off his report on the bombing fund he had chaired, noting that it was good that the Trustees of the Fund had worked together on the project, as it had given the people of Birmingham ‘an opportunity to help, and some outside groups were denied the opportunity to exploit the situation.’ By coordinating the fund locally, they were able to stave off outside oversight, funneling money into caring for a slightly-injured white boy and his family, while largely denying financial assistance to the six Black families, who suffered the incredible financial and emotional burdens, in grieving their dead children. Moreover, while asserting that ‘the people of Birmingham’ had raised this money, they ignored the fact that the vast majority of the money they raised came from Jewish community members and a donation from the largest local newspaper, the Birmingham Post-Herald. The people of Birmingham largely stood by, as did the rest of the nation, leaving the Black residents of the city to bear all of the costs of living in a segregated city, with individuals, Klan members, and the police all bringing violence to bear to keep it that way.
While the Association of Artists for Freedom imagined a national Christmas Boycott that would use financial pain to compel difficult conversations and lead to action for true equality and opportunities for African Americans, instead observers recoiled at the idea. Then, as now, when people learned of the planned action, they could only imagine the disappointment of the day and of the season, to not share in the joy of Christmas day. Yet it was abundantly clear to those fighting for equality that the fleeting joy of the day did not erase lifetimes of injustice and inequity. In the coming decades, others would take action to elicit similar conversations, and like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Colin Kapernick all discovered the consistent response by critics that now was not the right time and it was not the right place. In the fall of 1963, these artists challenged Americans, especially Black citizens, to consider if they wanted to force a national conversation confronting racism and discrimination. Sobered by the limited, incremental change they had achieved in the past ten years, after years-long boycotts and protracted court battles, most did not sign on to boycott Christmas in 1963. Yet the attempt to do so reflected the growing awareness of Black people’s economic power and their frustration at the slow, deadly pace of change.