The “Not-Buying Power” of the Black Community: Urban Boycotts and Equal Employment Opportunity, 1960-1964

Stacy Kinlock Sewell. The Journal of African American History. Volume 89, Issue 2. Spring 2004.

Protesters representing the NAACP shouted, “Don’t stop, don’t shop, till the flag drops” in 2002, as they publicized a multiyear tourism boycott against South Carolina. These protesters demanded a modification of the state’s flag, which bears the Confederate emblem. It is an ongoing protest, one of several economic boycotts launched recently by the NAACP. Other national boycotts, including a five-month action against the Adam’s Mark Hotel chain, have been concluded, and a boycott against major television networks, which cast few African Americans in principal roles, was threatened but not initiated. Although they expressed concern for the African American-owned businesses in South Carolina, many newspaper editorials and columnists agreed that such boycotts were justified, necessary, and potentially very effective. It is significant to recall that boycotts as a civil rights strategy did not always meet with such widespread approbation. The NAACP itself looked askance at some of the boycotts launched in the 1950s and 1960s that sought to expand employment opportunities for African Americans. The public support for economic demands was a gamble for an organization that preferred a legal or political approach to civil rights. But urban and economic realities, combined with a new assertiveness among activists, gave prominence to this strategy, particularly in matters involving employment opportunities.

Boycotts have been one weapon long used by protesters seeking economic rights, and this strategy has been integral to 20th century civil rights protests in the urban North. Chicago, Detroit, and New York City all experienced consumer boycotts that aimed to win employment for African Americans, both before and after World War II. These boycotts-far from receiving media approval-divided African American leaders and sparked competition among civil rights groups. Civil rights history has addressed rivalry in the movement, but it has been limited largely to the southern struggles or to individual personalities and leaders. Rivalry, furthermore, has been viewed as a sign of disintegration, not as a creative force. However, this emphasis does not fully consider the ways in which competition among activists and organizations transformed the strategies and shifted the goals of the movement itself.

Boycotts in the 1960s reveal conflict among civil rights proponents because their actions began to command real potential in procuring jobs. The federal government and self-proclaimed progressive business leaders had demonstrated a rhetorical eagerness, if not a real commitment, to equal employment opportunity that civil rights leaders hoped would lead to more substantive racial integration in the workplace. Urban protesters began to use what some considered to be militant tactics: results-oriented strategies that called for affirmative action and racial proportionalism. The effect of this division caused activists to struggle with one another and against employers over the nature of quotas and goals, preferential treatment, and compensatory action. Indeed, remedies for employment discrimination can be seen, in part, as a product of this competition.

In the early 1960s, activists were just beginning to develop a language of “affirmative action.” That phrase, first used in an Executive Order by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, found currency among civil rights groups then engaged in street protests and negotiations with employers. While the Kennedy administration declined to provide a specific definition of affirmative action in theory or practice, militant ministers and activists from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) did. Affirmative action was needed as compensation for past discrimination; employers who refused to hire minority workers should give preference to non-white job seekers to remedy past discriminatory practices. Such a rationale gave their actions a radical cast that offended some liberal civil rights supporters. Thus the NAACP and the National Urban League, as well as some CORE moderates, remained circumspect regarding the strategies pursued by some of their fellow activists. By the mid-1960s, however, such difference among civil rights groups appears to have been productive. The language of “affirmative action,” though not yet widely used, would soon become common parlance, not only among supporters of the Civil Rights Movement, but also in government and corporate personnel operations.

This essay explores the contest that ensued between civil rights moderates and militants who sought jobs for African Americans. The locus of this contest was the consumer boycott, the weapon of choice for urban ministers’ movements and CORE activists who demanded employers change their hiring practices. As the demands of street protesters, ministers, and moderates escalated and competitive relationships developed among these groups, each believing it was more qualified to express the assumed singular needs of the black community. That very competition, as well shall see, was vital to the movement.

An overt racial consciousness became an element in the demands for jobs. This aspect of protest, viewed as reckless militancy by some, also provided a means to gauge results. The picket line that gathered outside of Brandt’s Liquors on 145th Street in Harlem in the summer of 1959 provides an example. Like the “Don’t buy where you can’t work” campaigns of the 1930s, this picket line aspired to open up jobs in a predominantly black neighborhood. The protesters accused area retailers of restricting black liquor salesmen to designated establishments. The activists reasoned that because white areas of the city were reserved for white salesmen, Harlem should be the exclusive province of black salesmen. To the national leaders of the NAACP, the underlying demand was abhorrent; it was “segregation if anything is.” Roy Wilkins deplored the boycotters’ effort to secure “the exclusive rights to territory on a racial basis.” That this boycott had its inception within a chapter of the NAACP is in itself remarkable, and points to the fact that the association provided an institutional home for activists that was, perhaps, not altogether fitting and appropriate, but served as a launching pad for intensified direct action.

The liquor store boycott reflected emergent tensions among activists, kindled by frustrations and rising expectations. There was impatience about their mien. More and more activists asserted that the concept of “nondiscrimination” used by fair employment practice agencies in 1960 was confining, inadequate; “nondiscrimination” did not find jobs for the men and women in Harlem and other urban areas. At this time, frustration with the variety of state fair-employment practice laws and agencies was at its peak. Some of the statutes were a product of extensive civil rights lobbying, as in Minnesota, and were generally agreeable to African Americans and liberal groups. Other statutes were coopted and modified by chambers of commerce and employers’ associations, as occurred in Illinois. There was a wide range in the statutes’ degree of authority and enforcement ability. Some re-created the federal government’s Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), as did New York State, which established the State Commission Against Discrimination that could bring suit in state court. New York’s statute was atypical, since most state and municipal commissions had no enforcement powers. But even New York’s Commission Against Discrimination relied upon a complaint procedure, and was therefore reactive, not proactive, as activists increasingly demanded. Protesters eschewed lengthy investigations by a state agency. Rather, they focused upon the broader landscape of employment opportunities where the effects of job discrimination could be readily observed. It is important to note that their target was not discrimination per se. Most did not seek color-blind employment policies, but visible results: employment based upon race-not regardless of it.

To be sure, color consciousness would be but one of several tactical divisions within this movement. Practitioners of nonviolent direct action, such as CORE, protested job discrimination in the streets, seeking to embarrass employers who hired few or no African Americans. Organizations with access to courts and corporate boardrooms, such as the NAACP and the National Urban League (NUL), politely interpreted these demands for policy makers and executives. Activists sought the ear of the men who made daily hiring decisions, but that goal in itself generated tensions between groups. The division between moderates and militants hinged upon a set of questions: Should they draw upon antidiscrimination law and state power, or appeal to employers directly? How useful were boycotts, disruption, and provocation, as used by southern civil rights protesters? And how much disruption was too much?

The more disruptive tactics forced a response from both civil rights moderates and business leaders. Indeed, moderates could capitalize upon the new militancy, as businessmen searched for responses to the new aggressiveness. A variety of employers-the owner of a local bakery, the manager of a bank branch, or the director of a Broadway play-quickly realized they did not want to be forced to negotiate with the “radicals.” Companies sought to retain their control in matters of employment: But with whom did they want to bargain? What was up for negotiation? Must they deal with a disruptive CORE chapter, or was there a more reasonable alternative? Under pressure from civil rights activists, businessmen began to address these questions. While corporate leaders did not massively resist the demands placed upon them, they did feed the inter- and intragroup competition and, in so doing, markedly shaped the evolving debate over the meaning of preferential and compensatory employment.

Constructing the “Negro Consumer”

Most urban manufacturers and employers were no more willing to employ African Americans in the 1960s than they were in the 1930s. But in the 1960s they no longer had a choice in the matter. A presumably new “Negro market” had emerged, according to management, retail, and advertising literature. The yearly migration of thousands of southerners to the urban North promised greater economic clout for African Americans. Incomes of African Americans rose, though unevenly, throughout the 1950s, and this fact would have social and cultural consequences. “If an employer has an unfair employment policy, and it’s known to Negroes, he can advertise, he can promote, he can do anything he wants to, and he won’t sell merchandise,” commented the director of the newly created ethnic markets division of a major advertiser. The Wall Street Journal noted in 1961 that national advertisers now lavished attention upon black consumers. The Negro market, with an annual purchasing power of $20 billion, “almost equal to that of all Canada,” expanded daily. The newspaper further noted that as the nation’s largest single minority group, the black population was growing at a rate 57 percent faster than the white population. Indeed, something was amiss when businesses dependent upon African Americans’ dollars were without black employees.

How did the existence of a Negro market influence African Americans’ job demands? Evidence of the buying power of African Americans proliferated, to the delight of black leaders. The growth of communications media designed for a black audience, the swelled circulation of Ebony and Jet magazines, and the multiplying number of radio stations that appealed to black listeners all pointed to changing demographic and economic circumstances for many African Americans. African Americans now populated visible, specific pockets of the northern urban landscape. This process worked gradually to concentrate African Americans’ spending power. Black women and men could feel themselves a presence in Philadelphia, which was one-quarter black in 1960, or in Newark, where African Americans comprised more than one-third of the city’s population. Meanwhile, the jobs now held by black men and women-even in traditional employment fields-paid much better than those they had left in the South.

Advertisers and retailers readily discerned a new black consumer and noticed her buying trends and preferences. Advertising consultants distinguished special traits: black consumers showed a greater brand-name loyalty than whites, and they were particularly sensitive to quality because of retailers’ propensity to dump shoddy merchandise in their neighborhood stores. According to one marketing consultant, rumor-about whom to patronize, whom to boycott-played a tremendous role in purchasing behavior among African Americans. The democratizing potential of consumer culture was not lost on one market researcher, who concluded that the purchase of quality consumer items represented “one of the roads leading to what [the African American] regards as his rightful place in society … Spending money is a direct weapon for achieving Negro rights.” It is unclear whether the fact of the black consumer alone prompted executives to hire African Americans, but there was a general sense that black employees could aid their companies in “capitalizing on Negro markets.”

Postwar geographic expansion added another dimension to the preexisting ethnic and class consumer variations. Suburbs and shopping centers were racially exclusive spaces; developers aimed to exclude certain racial and ethnic groups as residents and consumers. Suburban shoppers now had alternatives to urban stores, leaving the downtown shopping districts to city residents. Thus, while African Americans sought claim to full integration in the nation’s economy, urban-to-suburban migration undermined that realization. In the short term, concentrated black spending power suggested black prosperity, yet the geographically segregated market imposed limits on the struggle for economic equality. Although African Americans’ earnings were relatively high in the 1950s, ominous signs of economic downturn existed after 1960. It was commonly understood that the slightest dip in overall employment rates had far graver repercussions for black workers. Discriminatory employers who hired African Americans last and fired them first were only a part of the problem. Other demons loomed and “blind market forces,” usually in the guise of automation, threatened to make semi- and unskilled labor obsolete. Fears were cited by example, such as the Chicago radio plant that now required 2 men to do the work that until then had required 200. If automation was a substantial problem for the labor movement, it was a colossal one for black workers, who remained disproportionately concentrated in low-skilled jobs.

Concerns about economic decline did not stem the movement for jobs, however, but rather they fed expectations for improved economic status. That the urban African American population became more concentrated geographically and economically were preconditions for the new urban boycott movement of the 1960s. The African American market was evidence of the black presence on the economic landscape of the nation, and the urban boycotts for jobs would express and assert a newfound economic power.

“The Best Unorganized Organized Group in America”

Racial turmoil was decidedly bad for business, a fact recognized early by the Wall Street Journal. The Civil Rights Movement in the North and South began to reexamine ways through which sanctions could fight discrimination, wisely appropriating the most drastic economic weapons used by labor unions. In Montgomery, Alabama, African Americans engaged this strategy when they stopped riding city buses in December 1955. Sitting in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter, too, could make a dent in the day’s business. The lunch counter manager noted with resentment, thirty-eight years after the incident, that he lost $150,000 altogether. “Wound up I lost one-third my profits, one-third my salary.” The boycotts’ effect was immediate; business as usual was halted.

As the Greensboro, North Carolina, lunch counter sit-ins began in February 1960, another movement converged in Philadelphia. The southern sit-ins inspired and informed the northern activists. The Rev. Leon Sullivan, a leader of the incipient movement, explained, “Some of us were picketing the five-and-ten to support the lunch counter sit-ins in the South, when we realized that the North and East had problems that were just as acute.” When fifteen of Philadelphia’s ministers met in March 1960, they focused on the problem of job discrimination and chose to revitalize the simple message of an earlier generation: “Don’t buy where you can’t work.” Like the southern sit-ins, this northern movement involved much of the black community in organized boycott action. In the first months of 1960, an estimated 200,000 African Americans participated in this substantial hit on the pocketbook of local businesses. Sullivan informed Roy Wilkins that “something tremendous is happening in Philadelphia.

Before arriving a decade earlier to become the pastor of Zion Baptist Church, in the heart of North Philadelphia’s African American community, Sullivan studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York. he had been an assistant to Rev. Adam clayton Powell, Jr., in his church and political campaigns. Like other members of Philadelphia’s black ministry, Sullivan kept abreast of developments in employment opportunities for young African Americans. His deep involvement in community organizing and civil rights activity motivated Sullivan to organize a Youth Employment Service at Zion Baptist and become involved in efforts to reduce juvenile crime in Philadelphia.

Sullivan did not emerge immediately as the force behind the “Selective Patronage Campaign.” In fact, Philadelphia’s newspapers were hard-pressed to name the ringleaders-and that was exactly what the “400 Ministers” wanted. Sullivan himself admitted only to being a “servant of the leaders.” Two years after the first campaigns, the Philadelphia Tribune would note that its leadership, “has never been admitted, the top man could be the Reverend Leon Sullivan.” The article continued, “Another possibility is T. E. Harper … Activities probably include the Reverend Joshua Licorish.” Another newspaper called the leaderless selective patronage program the “best unorganized organized group in America.” Because the leaders went unnamed, any rift within the movement went undetected.

Organized though leaderless, it was the “colored preacher” who was key to the success of the selective patronage program; he “is free as no other is in such matters,” wrote Sullivan. For a white minister “would be hard-put on a Sunday morning to tell his members not to buy a product when the manager of the boycotted business is not only a member of the church, but also on his board of trustees.” The ministers were able to conduct investigations and inquire about the number of minorities employed and in which jobs. Company managers usually gave this information willingly. They might as well; the 400 Ministers probably had a head count already.

The selective patronage campaign was, in a way, exclusive; it was concerned with certain jobs. The ministers wanted African Americans in jobs with dignity and responsibility, in what they called “sensitive” supervisory, clerical, and skilled posts. Their remarkable innovation was to negotiate specific numbers of hires. This was considered fundamental to the boycott’s effectiveness. And to the ministers, it was the employer’s problem if he alleged he could find no “qualified” black workers. Thus, the Tasty Baking Company managers’ assertion that they employed hundreds of black workers-all in menial occupations-fell on deaf ears. The ministers’ request to Gulf oil was that “Negro girls be employed in the offices and Negro men be employed as oil truck drivers.” An agreement with Sun oil outlined “25 Negro girls in clerical, three drivers and one salesman.”

For days, weeks, and even months, a quarter of Philadelphia’s residents stopped purchasing Sunoco Gas, Pepsi-Cola, Breyer’s Ice Cream, or Tastykakes, while the ministers persisted in negotiations with companies’ management. The strategy worked one product, one company at a time. By the time of the great action against A & P food markets in January 1963, some twenty companies had been boycotted and agreements had been reached. On the surface, the agreements secured jobs. But under the surface, the reign of the free market was under attack, the employers’ prerogative about whom and how to hire, challenged. To be sure, the ministers’ movement outraged employers, who used words like “force,” “intimidation,” and “demands” to describe selective patronage. The ministers maintained that they simply dealt in “persuasion”-convincing their parishioners to buy another brand, thus constituting what one observer titled the “not-buying power of Philadelphia’s Negroes.”

Selective patronage illustrated that jobs could be secured-at more than 300 companies in Philadelphia-by virtually ignoring the city, state, and federal fair-employment agencies. It preached intraracial self-help and a result-oriented organizing model that matched the quickening tempo of protest. Activists in the North and South would soon take note, and by late 1962, consumer boycotts were launched in a number of cities for the purpose of gaining nonwhite employment. Sullivan brought the idea to Atlanta earlier that year at the request of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) launched “Operation Breadbasket” and had many successes in Atlanta and in many northern cities where it helped to build SCLC’s northern base. In Chicago, Operation Breadbasket, led by Rev. Jesse Jackson, achieved numerous impressive job gains by utilizing the nonviolent selective patronage techniques pioneered by Sullivan and the 400 Ministers in Philadelphia.

Northern CORE chapters were also eager to utilize selective patronage’s boycott techniques in the early 1960s. It was the perfect solution for CORE’S northern activists, many of whom wanted to apply direct action to employment and housing issues, but were “bewildered” as to how to go about doing so. Northern CORE chapters started to become active around employment discrimination in 1960, initially as a partner to the ministers’ groups in some cities, or the local NAACP or Urban League in others. But there was rivalry too, as CORE competed with NAACP activists Herbert Hill and Cecil Moore, who were active in New York and Philadelphia, respectively. Of the Philadelphia 400 Ministers, CORE field organizer Genevieve Hughes observed that it “operates about four times as effectively as CORE could ever hope to.” With that, CORE spearheaded equal employment boycotts in New York.

Core “Stalls-In” for Civil Rights

“I have been informed,” Rev. Leon Sullivan wrote to NAACP Executive secretary Roy Wilkins in July 1962, “that in New York a mammoth Selective Patronage Program is being organized.” Indeed, the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn was then the site of a sweeping movement, comprised of ministers, their parishioners, and CORE activists, who had recently gained cooperation and hiring agreements from 150 merchants. Like the Philadelphia protesters, Brooklyn activists targeted producers of repeat-purchase consumer items, such as bread and milk. Brooklyn’s Sealtest Dairy was picketed in 1961; Ebinger’s Bakery was the next target, during the early months of 1963. These boycotts displayed elements of the selective patronage style developed in Philadelphia. The actions, which received widespread publicity, also sought to gain specific numbers of hires in socalled sensitive positions with high visibility. Negotiators demanded jobs for nonwhite male drivers and salesgirls: “Nowadays at Ebinger’s, when they know CORE is coming, they bake a cake and make sure a Negro or Puerto Rican girl is there to sell it.” Bakery executives “crumbled like cake.”

The Ebinger’s boycott in Brooklyn illustrates the typically gendered character of company negotiations with activists. Employment demands, seeking to transcend traditional job categories based on race, reaffirmed the division of labor based on sex. Thus sales and clerical jobs were negotiated for black women, while drivers, door-to-door sales, management, and skilled trade positions were reserved for black men. Research reports by CORE, entitled “Women in the hotel Industry” and “Men in the Skilled Trades,” are suggestive of the traditional gendering of jobs, if not the traditional racial groups filling those positions. The slogans and placards of the movement further illustrate this pattern. Signs at a Philadelphia restaurant demonstration, for example, read, “No work for mother if she’s the wrong color.”

Boycott negotiators in CORE and the ministers’ groups did not press for jobs outside of the traditional gender categories. To the activists, it was inconceivable to seek a plumber’s job for a woman. And although black males sought white-collar and some clerical jobs, no one suggested that they were racially excluded as stenographers. African American women and men considered normalization of their place in the economy and barrier-free employment in sex-segregated terms. Robert Curvin of Newark CORE gave a revealing explanation when he said that the local Employment Committee “has put most of its emphasis on jobs for men,” since “it means more in terms of family stability.” When an NAACP group gathered employment applications from young, married men, a female in the group reported that most men sought jobs in skilled labor. Most of the women, she presumed, “want clerical jobs.”

CORE assumed a style that resembled that of the Philadelphia ministers. Investigators researched the size of the operation, the nonwhite clientele, and the local labor union. Inspections of the offices and internal operations could be conducted effectively by white CORE members. The researchers had a rough sense of how many minorities were employed and in what capacities. Only then did the young activists politely request a meeting with top officials.

Management usually complied with CORE’S request for an appointment; to do otherwise drew public embarrassment, boycotts, and picket lines. Company officials described these meetings as similar to labor-management negotiations. Some of them made efforts to seat the participants intermixed with management officials, in order to mitigate possible antagonism between the groups. CORE would present specific and detailed proposals for hiring, aimed to “avoid the possibility of token integration by stressing continuing observation.” If their demands were not fulfilled, negotiators also presented an ultimatum that “could be carried out.”

In a sense CORE’S success can be measured by the extent of its infamy among business leaders. Corporate officers dreaded picket lines and boycotts and attempted to avoid them at all costs. Employers’ fears, however, may have outweighed the actual damage inflicted by CORE’s direct action. CORE’S own concept of success varied widely. CORE considered its agreement with A & P in December 1963 an achievement because the supermarket chain agreed to eventually hire 200 black employees. CORE also claimed a triumph in the sweeping agreement it made in October 1963 with the Hempstead, New York, Chamber of Commerce to “stimulate” the employment of 300 minorities in the following six weeks. In the case of consumer-product boycotts, CORE saw victory when a supermarket removed boycotted products from its shelves.

In pursuit of success some CORE chapters became more militant in 1963, as they were driven to compete with other civil rights groups and national CORE leaders. The competition was evident during the Brooklyn Downstate Medical Center campaign, when CORE denounced the hiring agreement brokered by the local ministers’ movement and Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller. When the ministers’ negotiator tried to explain the agreement publicly, he was repudiated. “Promises, promises … that don’t mean nothing,” gatherers shouted. CORE’S historians August Meier and Elliot Rudwick wrote that the group’s new perspective reflected larger changes in the Civil Rights Movement. “The greater the achievements, the clearer it became how much remained to be done and how little, relatively speaking, had been accomplished by the quieter, more ‘respectable’ forms of nonviolent direct action.” The swiftly radicalizing New York CORE sought noticeable results, and employment protests presented opportunities to frighten local businessmen and secure quantifiable hiring agreements. Demonstrators experienced more frequent run-ins with the police. Employment protesters intrepidly targeted the most flagrant and high-profile offenders: banks, television broadcasters, and the airline industry. New York CORE chapters were especially bold, characterized by one writer as “[i]mpetuous, quick on the draw, intoxicated by press attention.”

Increasingly conscious of the power of mass media and concerned with making a big splash in lily-white industries, CORE launched its largest “employment incident” yet on opening day of the 1964 World’s Fair. To civil rights leaders, there was great irony in the fact that few African American and Puerto Rican men were among the workers constructing the pavilions at the fairground in Queens, New York. They planned to highlight this irony; their chance would come on a single day in April 1964. A citywide coalition, which included A. Philip Randolph’s Negro American Labor Council, the Urban League, and the NAACP’s Labor and Industry Committee, pressed for 25 percent of the World’s Fair jobs. When CORE, a relative latecomer, joined the coalition, the Urban League smelled trouble, and promptly opted out so as “not to be identified with other groups.” High-profile demonstrations, one before the United Nations, were held in the months preceding the fair’s opening day, but the coalition was unable to clinch a substantive victory.

As more moderate participants grew frustrated with the negotiations, the Brooklyn chapter of CORE, described by one chronicler of the civil rights campaign as “a hotbed of rebellion,” moved to center stage. By 1964 the Brooklyn branch was viewed by national CORE as one of the more radical chapters. Brooklyn CORE announced it would ruin the opening day of the fair by drastically cutting attendance. The group planned a “stall-in” secretly only weeks before the event, but details had been purposely kept from members to avoid “leaks.” “Nonviolent combat teams” would be deployed in more than 2,000 cars. At the proper moment, the vehicles would run out of fuel or develop mechanical trouble on every bridge, tunnel, parkway, and expressway leading to the Queens fairgrounds. “Take only enough gas to get your car on exhibit,” CORE’S leaflets instructed. “Drive a while for freedom.

As predicted, the plot met with staunch resistance from the national CORE office, which already had plans for a more “reasonable” demonstration at the fair itself. CORE’S leaders voted overwhelmingly to suspend the Brooklyn chapter if the stall-in occurred. It “is not a CORE-type action,” protested James Farmer, CORE’S National Director. “Brooklyn CORE hasn’t even attempted to negotiate with the [W]orld’s Fair” managers and executives. Some activists outside of CORE backed the stall-in. For example, while the New York Branch of the NAACP opposed the event, the chair of its Labor and Industry Committee outlined CORE’S plans and urged members to participate as individuals.

On 22 April 1964, the World’s Fair opened amid great apprehension. President Lyndon B. Johnson made a scheduled appearance. James Farmer and 300 CORE moderates were arrested while protesting job discrimination in front of the pavilions of Schaeffer Beer and the Ford Motor Company. Yet only a dozen cars were stalled in light traffic on the approaches to the fairgrounds. Amid tables piled with heaps of unused stall-in literature, the Brooklyn CORE organizers later explained the failure. The plan was released to the press for “psychological reasons,” said one organizer. Talk of a stall-in “helped us get what we wanted.”

The confrontational method and lack of a cohesive goal revealed a very public division within the ranks of the movement. The Joint Committee’s demand for jobs was consistently and flatly refused. And without employment gains, what was left to reap but publicity? To Brooklyn CORE, conventional picketing and boycotts were slow and piecemeal; they were of little utility, and media attention-or condemnation-would have to stand in for results. To the larger civil rights community, it became apparent that the chapter’s reckless militancy resulted from the fact that the group had little leverage with New York City’s powerful and lily-white unions and industries, let alone national corporations. Boycotts were effective only to a point in the face of an impenetrable power structure. But the very existence of the boycott threat, alongside demands for specific numbers of hires, held potential for militant and moderate alike.

Whom and How to Hire? The Emergence of Affirmative Action

Brooklyn CORE, indeed all of the groups involved in the World’s Fair negotiations, faced a similar dilemma: How could they make an employer’s workforce resemble the population racially and ethnically? Brooklyn CORE moved to the extreme in an attempt to realize marked results, but its initial hiring goals were viewed by sympathizers as not particularly extreme, for as the stall-in occurred, CORE chapters from San Francisco to Elizabeth, New Jersey, also sought more dramatic results on the part of corporations and other employers. The approach that emerged seemed reasonable to Norman Hill, CORE’S moderate program director. By 1964 he had negotiated numerous hiring agreements that came to be “based on some rough estimate of the surrounding population.” Race and geography combined to resurrect the logic of the 1959 Harlem liquor stores boycott.

The need for results prompted CORE to negotiate preferential hiring agreements, which would become the sine qua non to demonstrate an absence of job discrimination at the company. This feature of the hiring agreements gained theoretical grounding: CORE had begun “talking in terms of ‘compensatory’ hiring,” explained Field Director Gordon Carey. Employers “now have a responsibility and obligation to make up for past sins.'” Chapters made steep and specific demands upon white-collar employers, among them, federally insured banks. CORE’S call for 75 percent minority enrollment in a bank’s training program was roundly criticized. One CORE staffer justified the percentage: “We are using only the aggressive recruitment methods which President Kennedy has advocated.” he continued, “No one really believes that this is really reverse discrimination … But there is a realization that the years of discrimination have been a toll against our country.”

CORE chapters based hiring demands-which they sometimes called “accelerated hiring”-upon more than simply population data. When a San Francisco chapter called on the Bank of America to supply employment data and a promise that all new hires be African American, bank officers were enraged. Newspapers condemned CORE for “intimidating business leaders” by “demanding quotas.” CORE found itself on the defensive: “We’re not demanding a quota … A ‘range of numbers’ is not a quota, it’s a goal.” General Motors accused CORE of threatening “a quota formula,” and numerous employers contended they would be compelled to hire the so-called unqualified in order to pacify civil rights activists; there was nothing voluntary or equitable about it, and they had no choice but to comply.

CORE’s tactics were reflected in the literature geared to corporate readers. Businessmen were warned. “Will American Industry have its Little Rock and its Oxford, Mississippi?” inquired the Harvard Business Review. Trade, retail, and personnel publications urged action. Step-by-step integration how-to’s were regularly featured: how to locate your local Urban League for referrals, how to enlist the support of your shop steward in integration plans, how to placate your status-conscious all-white secretaries’ pool should they threaten a walkout. A high-exposure boycott could be a nasty embarrassment to General Motors; it could deal the deathblow to the small company in financial straits. At a minimum, make certain there is an explicit non-discrimination policy-but be careful-for civil rights advocates “are now likely to look at the results of hiring practices, not just the practices themselves.”

The panicked atmosphere sparked by CORE permitted moderate organizations to more freely experiment with bolder approaches. Presidential politics and pending equal employment law, too, prompted this revised position, as federal affirmative action guidelines tightened and new federal antidiscrimination efforts were proposed. Perhaps the most seemingly drastic change in direction on affirmative action in employment came from the National Urban League, traditionally a moderate organization. The Urban League sought a role for the organization in which it might serve the new goals and perhaps have a moderating influence on the militants. Only several years earlier, some members had been quite critical of the league’s employment program; it appeared to be “a ‘do-nothing’ agency concerning the crucial economic problems of Negroes,” observed one New York league member. The league’s program clearly lacked the verve and results of the recent civil rights upstarts. Some league members suggested the organization spearhead economic boycotts. The league’s industrial relations specialist thought the suggestion impossible, yet conceded that there “can be no objection to the [Urban League] providing certain technical know-how to pressure groups that use this technique.”

Aroused by CORE’S activists, Urban League affiliates reexamined their employment programs. The Grand Rapids, Michigan, league leaders gave serious consideration to the pros and cons of “preferential treatment for the Negro,” and the NUL’s Washington representative forcefully advocated “compensatory action” during congressional hearings on equal employment legislation. But Whitney Young, the NUL’s Executive Director, was initially concerned about this accelerated tempo and advised against copying the approach of CORE and other groups in the direct action movement. “We should use a diversified approach and give the opposition somewhere to go.” Young was in fact setting the NUL upon an entirely new footing.

Eventually, the Urban League fully capitalized on the growing militancy of the northern activists, bolstering its stature and finances in the process. CORE-inspired boycotts clearly were not an option for the league, since its contributors were some of the largest consumer manufacturers in the country, such as Goodyear, RCA, Westinghouse, and Colgate-Palmolive. Speaking to the league’s high-powered Commerce and Industry Council about the rash of employment pickets, Whitney Young asserted, “We have been able to do an interpretive job with some of these groups-helped avoid some unwarranted activity on their part.” But he admonished corporate executives, “We are not trying to help any company discriminate with sophistication. To suggest that the Urban League could protect a company in case of a boycott would be inaccurate, although business leaders may have hoped for this possibility. In 1961 only three corporations pledged more than $5,000 to the league; eighteen corporations pledged at least that amount in just the first half of 1962. It was the industrial consultant’s “considered judgment” that federal and boycott pressure will cause “more and more corporations to be faced with the problem of Negro employment.” Indeed, corporate donations to the league probably did reflect fears of boycotts, FEPC prosecutions, and bad publicity.

Growing corporate contributions and the certainty that beleaguered companies had nowhere else to turn encouraged the NUL to inaugurate a bold program. “Lately, as other civil rights groups have stepped up the pressure for more and better jobs for Negroes,” noted the Wall Street Journal, “the League itself has become more aggressive in the employment field.” At the NUL’s National Convention in 1963, Whitney Young unveiled the “Domestic Marshall Plan.” It was devised to give “special emergency aid” to African Americans, in the form of “compensation” for the past 300 years of discrimination. “We ask that the community consciously include the Negro, whereas in the past it has consciously excluded him.”

For the NUL’s corporate givers, it was a radical approach. The New York Times noted, “Mr. Young concedes he is receiving calls from corporate officials angry over the league’s increasing cooperation with the more militant civil rights groups.” Indeed, Young did agree with CORE’s logic, to some extent, but he was careful to denounce the use of quotas, and a current CORE demand for a 25 percent share of jobs. Nevertheless, he candidly endorsed the principle of preferential treatment in hiring. “[W]e do mean discrimination in reverse for Negroes in employment, although we are not trying to get whites out of jobs.” Here was the strongest statement yet heard from a so-called moderate organization. Who could the besieged employer turn to now?

The notion of “compensation” was flexible. It held the possibility and promise of moderation, even though it was also part of CORE’S militancy. When used by the Urban League, the concept echoed business’s social responsibility to practice fair employment. It called upon corporations to act voluntarily, with benevolence and generosity in making amends through preferential hiring. The compensation concept could potentially legitimize a broader affirmative action program. It could create a space for the engagement of corporations, which heretofore assumed an antagonistic relationship to the radical protesters. With the Urban League’s help, business leaders might become part of the solution. The language of affirmative action, white-hot in CORE’S hands, became feasible and acceptable to business leaders subsequent to the Urban League’s translation.

It must be stated that the paths of CORE and the Urban League greatly diverged. The audiences to whom they appealed differed greatly, and neither competed with the other for members nor donations. Yet their relationship, their rivalry (of a sort) was symbiotic. The Urban League’s approach to securing employment fed CORE’S radical stance. The bold demands and uncompromising stance of CORE chapters provided an opportunity for the Urban League to experiment and ultimately express a position strongly in favor of affirmative action that would not have been possible without CORE’s activism. The existence of a boycott culture in the urban civil rights campaigns was as useful to the Urban League as it was to CORE, though perhaps unwittingly so.

What started as a gamble for civil rights boycotters-the specific hiring demands, based upon the concepts of compensation and preference-quickly became standard fare in nearly every debate on equal employment opportunity throughout the 1960s. These demands, products of competition and rivalry, had unintended yet fortunate consequences. The theoretical and historical justification for racially conscious hiring and promotion policies came to be shared by moderate civil rights organizations, adopted in employment discrimination law, and espoused by government agencies. The concept of affirmative action, formulated in the crucible of boycotts and protests, is today part of the lexicon of human resources and personnel management. If the boycott organizers of 1960 were in any way shortsighted, it was in their belief that four decades hence, their tactics would no longer be necessary or warranted.