Responding to Arizona's law cracking down on illegal immigration and the resulting national protests, including threat of boycott to Arizona’s tourism industry, Susan Klopfer argues that such economic embargoes have retained their role as a strong and successful tradition in modern civil rights history.
Recent protests taking place in more than 90 cities on Saturday reminded politicians of the size of the immigrant community, Jorge-Mario Cabrera from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, California, told reporters: "If Republicans and Democrats do not take care of this albatross around our necks, this will in fact be the undoing of many, many years of civil rights struggle in this country." In his city, more than 60,000 people turned out for a downtown rally.
“Cabrera knows what he is talking about,” Klopfer responds, pointing to a “particularly strong but little known boycott that took place in the Mississippi Delta nearly fifty years ago.”
“As 1961 came to a close, some white folks in the Mississippi Delta were dreaming of a White Christmas when they decided to keep their black customers away from the city of Clarksdale's annual parade.
“Their tune changed dramatically when Coahoma County's NAACP chapter led by civil rights activist Aaron Henry sponsored a major boycott over the Christmas shopping season of 1961. Downtown stores were all heavily dependent on black trade giving the boycott both immediate and lasting effects,” Klopfer said.
Medgar Evers, head of the state NAACP, and Henry had met with President John F. Kennedy over the summer during the NAACP convention in Philadelphia. National board members traveled from Philadelphia to Washington, D. C. on a freedom train where they talked with the president and others over the severity of their problems.
But several months later, after the group returned from their visit with Kennedy, Clarksdale's mayor decided there would be “no Negro participation”
“Henry and others were stunned and affronted by the mayor's edict,” Klopfer said.
“It was tradition for the black band to play at the end of the parade, followed by floats from their community. There seemed to be no reason for this decision, except that the mayor apparently resented the progress African Americans were making all over the state.”
Henry and Evers called for a boycott of downtown stores with the slogan: “If we can't parade downtown, we won't trade downtown.”
“Handbills were printed and a newsletter sent out asking for blacks to join in the boycott; merchants felt pressure from the start. The white community leaders would not come to terms with the black community and the boycott dragged on,” Klopfer said.
“Aaron Henry voiced the black community's view when he said it could go on forever unless there were real changes in hiring practices.
“When the county's attorney Thomas H. (Babe) Pearson threatened to jail Henry if he didn’t use his influence to call off the boycott, Henry would not budge, so Pearson called out for Clarksdale Police Chief Ben Collins to come out from the side room of his office, and told him to “take this nigger to jail.”
The arrest was illegal, since no warrant was issued, but Henry knew better not to argue with an armed policeman. “He could have been killed for such dissent.”
Klopfer says years later, Henry admitted he didn't mind going to jail at the time, “since he knew it would result in an intensification of the boycott-- and it did.”
Seven more Clarksdale civil rights leaders were brought in and all were locked up, later charged with restraint of trade and released. The boycott reached its peak about three years later, following passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and merchants felt the economic pinch throughout the event as they missed one-half of their customers, Klopfer said.
Yet even while Henry and others were being arrested, another group -- all white --tried launching a boycott of their own when the Mississippi State Legislature passed a resolution that no loyal Mississippian should shop in Memphis, Tennessee, just across the state line, and quite close to Clarksdale, Klopfer said.
“Tougaloo professor John Salter, a dedicated civil rights activist, wrote about the Clarksdale boycott, noting that while public accommodations and other facilities in Memphis were quietly desegregating, the Mississippi legislature further distinguished itself, ‘...by publicly investigating conditions at the University Hospital in Jackson, where white and black children were leaving their segregated wards and playing together in the corridors’.”
While few people today have read about the Clarkdale boycott, “most have learned in their history books -- or were alive at the time -- “ when six years earlier, African-Americans in Alabama launched a boycott of the bus system in Montgomery after local civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white rider.
“Parks 1955 decision came soon after the trial freeing the murderers of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Illinois school boy who was killed in the Mississippi Delta for allegedly whistling at white women.”
Given that African-Americans constituted a large part of the bus ridership, the boycott hurt Montgomery’s revenue base.
“As people found alternative ways to get to work and school, the boycott drew national attention. Even some northerners supported the boycott and gave donations. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, who would remain at the forefront of the struggle through the 1960s, emerged at this time.”
The Montgomery boycott ended in 1956 when the Supreme Court declared that the segregated transit system was unconstitutional.
“Hispanics already know that boycotts have already shown to be effective in their quest for labor justice and union rights.” Klopfer said, responding to recent boycotts taking place around the country and in Iowa over the new Arizona law.
In 1965, the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, led by Cesar Chavez, launched a national boycott against grapes.
“The five-year boycott, or la huelga, placed enormous pressure on California grape growers to recognize the union and it drew national attention to the plight of unorganized immigrant workers in low-paying and dangerous jobs,” Klopfer said.
Boycotts still carry a threat in the Delta, Klopfer said.
“Citizens in the small town of Cleveland, near the site where Emmett Till was killed in 1955, recently threatened an Easter boycott over an issue involving school segregation. One thousand school children marched from their building to administrative offices. The school board listened -- at least for this particular demand -- and gave in, after board members were told of the possible boycott.”
“Boycott threats carry weight,” Klopfer added. “Politicians should be taking seriously the response to Arizona’s new law-- they would do well to remember history.”
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Susan Klopfer is the author of three civil rights books, including "Who Killed Emmett Till?" "The Emmett Till Book" and "Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited." She is an award-winning journalist and has been an acquisitions and development editor for Prentice Hall. She is the author of a Book-of-the-