On September 29, 1962, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference announced Operation Breadbasket, a boycott campaign against companies that refused to hire African-Americans. This was part of the larger civil rights campaigns around economic and workplace justice, which are often trivialized or forgotten completely by people who prefer easy narratives about individual rights and sitting in the back of the bus to the reality of the fight over the lived discrimination people faced and continue to face every day in this country.
The fight for economic justice was a huge part of civil rights. Economic justice was always central to the black freedom struggle. When the classic period of the civil rights movement developed in the 1950s, economic justice was front and center. In Philadelphia, a minister named Leon Sullivan developed a fight against places of business in black communities that refused to hire black workers. Sullivan built upon similar programs from the 1930s in developing this, especially the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign out of Chicago that began in 1929. He worked closely with ministers in the black community to develop political power to boycott racist companies and buy from black-owned and black-employing businesses. They obtained statistics about black employment and put pressure on companies to comply. This worked very well in Philadelphia. In 1962, the SCLC brought Sullivan down to Atlanta to teach them everything he knew. That became Operation Breadbasket. It was pretty successful. The program combined civil rights direct action with both black and liberal white consumer movements to put economic pressure on these stores. Picketing racist stores to pressure them to change their hiring practices was a central strategy here and often quite effective.
Ralph Abernathy, King’s right-hand man, ran the operation. Building on Sullvan’s work in Philadelphia, Abernathy and other leading pastors conducted a survey of work in Atlanta, discovering, not surprisingly, that many white-owned stores where blacks shopped either only hired them for the most menial positions or did not hire them at all. As Bread Basket (it was initially two words) developed and Abernathy had other things to do, the leadership went to Fred Bennette, a friend of King and his sometimes bodyguard who at the time was the interim pastor of Mount Welcome Baptist Church in Atlanta. It was slow moving. The pastors were busy and tended to revolve more around individual action than organizing.
This idea was not invented by Sullivan or the SCLC but it did spread through them through different communities. I’ve seen it in research I’ve been doing on civil rights in Seattle. It will not surprise how the negotiations around this almost immediately lead to companies claiming that not only are they not racist, but they wouldn’t want to be discriminating against white people in hiring too and isn’t all discrimination bad. Let’s just say this was not compelling to civil rights activists who routinely noted how companies such as Safeway and Nordstrom either never hired African-Americans or maybe had just a few in the lowest wage positions.
These ridiculous arguments were also used in Georgia. When Breadbasket targeted Sears, that company’s southern division actually argued in court that it was actually an employment agency in how it was operating and since employment agencies couldn’t discriminate by race, it was illegal and racist. The company’s lawyers that any employer targeted by Breadbasket could appeal to the Fair Employment Practices Commission and if the FEPC didn’t satisfy, sue the civil rights leaders. This is next level cynicism right here.
In Atlanta at least, Operation Breadbasket built some good connections to the labor movement. The AFL-CIO, along with individual unions such as the Teamsters and other unions were interested and provided at least some level of support. In 1965, the campaign took another step. It targeted the pen and cigarette lighter company Scripto. This company had black employees, but they were in menial tasks. And when those workers decided to form a union, Scripto’s argument against allowing this in the courts was that the black workers were obviously not intelligent enough to make such a decision. A boycott against Scripto went national and fought against the general abusive attitude toward black workers. By this time, it was also expanding outside of Atlanta and targeting racism businesses throughout Georgia. There’s a general sense within the popular narrative of the civil rights movement that not much happened in the South between 1965 and King’s assassination in 1968, except maybe the March Against Fear after the shooting of James Meredith in 1966. But that’s of course completely untrue. People were fighting for all sorts of power on the local and state level. The larger Georgia fight of Breadbasket is one example of this. There were some attempts to expand this into Alabama and Florida, but it didn’t go too far.
By 1967, Operation Breadbasket had built $22 million in income each year in the black community from the wages paid to black workers in previously all-white stores. The previous year, Martin Luther King and the SCLC decided to take the idea to Chicago as part of its broader campaign up there. Overall, the Chicago campaign was a disaster, as King said he faced more hate in trying to desegregate northern housing than he ever did in the South. But Operation Breadbasket was the exception. Heading it up was a young seminary student in the city named Jesse Jackson. He proved quite adept at this. He started by targeting five dairies. Three immediately caved. The other two followed after the picketing began. He then moved onto the soda industry and ran camapigns against both Coke and Pepsi. Then it was supermarket chains. King was thrilled and Jackson was on the rise, under King’s wing. Jackson and Operation Breadbasket created over 2,000 jobs in the black community in a short time.
In 1967, Jackson became the director of all Operation Breadbasket campaigns nationally. But in the aftermath of King’s 1968 assassination while engaging in a Memphis economic justice campaign, supporting the sanitation workers strike, things began to get tense. Ralph Abernathy took over SCLC and while he was a good man, he didn’t have a lot of big vision and wanted to consolidate control, pretty ineffectively. In 1971, he demanded that Jackson move from Chicago to Atlanta so Operation Breadbasket could be run from SCLC officers. Jackson refused and quit his work with that organization. Instead, he built on his previous years and started his own organization–People United to Save Humanity. PUSH would become the group that pushed Jackson into the national spotlight and his two presidential runs, while still working on economic justice issues. Operation Breadbasket died in 1972 after SCLC couldn’t keep it going without him.
This is the 335th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.