Freedom Song: Interviews from Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965
Economic and Labor Activists and the Business Community
In fighting Jim Crow, civil rights activists did more than stage protests and marches; they also used their economic clout to push businesses to desegregate.
In Desegregating the Dollar: African American Consumerism in the Twentieth Century, historian Robert E. Weems describes how African Americans used what he calls "consumer retribution" to fight Jim Crow. The Montgomery bus boycott is perhaps the most famous example of consumer retribution. The Women’s Political Council (WPC), working with the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), initiated the boycott following Rosa Parks's arrest. Parks refused to give her seat to a white man, defying segregation law. Weems argues that the boycott succeeded, at least in part, because the bus system had consistently failed to afford job opportunities to African Americans. While 70 percent of the bus system’s riders were Black, none of the drivers were, which fueled the boycotters’ resentment.74
As the MIA’s spokesperson, Martin Luther King, Jr. was acutely aware of employment discrimination in the bus system and its role in mobilizing the community to support the boycott. King was deeply concerned about economic inequality, and he recognized the power of Black consumer retribution to affect change. Throughout his career as an activist, King stressed the importance of Black economic self-reliance. "Until we as a race learn to develop our power we will get nowhere. We’ve got to get economic and political power for our race," King declared at a meeting of the MIA. King later recommended that the MIA’s board establish a Black-owned savings and loan company.75
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall writes that the civil rights movement's dominant narrative obscures King’s commitment to economic justice. "Gone is King the democratic socialist who advocated unionization, planned the Poor People’s Campaign, and was assassinated in 1968 while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike," she writes.76 Similarly, the dominant narrative obfuscates the importance of consumer activism as a strategy for combatting Jim Crow. Even in histories of the Montgomery bus boycott, accounts of King's leadership often overshadow the sacrifices of the domestic servants and day laborers who made the boycott a success. As Weems writes, "While King’s place in history has been deservedly illuminated, consumer activism, the most potent nonviolent strategy employed by African Americans during this period of civil rights activity, has not been similarly spotlighted."77
The interviews in this collection speak to the importance of Black consumer activism within the movement. They also show that the Black freedom struggle and the fight for economic justice were interconnected. In her interview for Eyes I, Coretta Scott King discusses her husband’s commitment to the latter cause. She says that once the legal barriers of segregation were dismantled, her husband planned to challenge the economic obstacles that prevented Black Americans from achieving equality. "In 1967 he began his campaign for economic justice," she tells her interviewer, "and that is what he understood was the final and great challenge, and that it would require much more from all of us, and he said this is going to be the most difficult aspect of our struggle."78
Other interviewees discuss Black consumer activism in the movement as well. In the early 1960s, Bernie Schweid, a white man, was the proprietor of a bookstore in downtown Nashville. In his interview, he discusses the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)-led boycott of downtown stores to protest segregated lunch counters. Schweid recalls that whites in Nashville were initially dismissive of the student sit-in movement; however, the boycott convinced the white public—and retailers, especially—of the students’ commitment to the cause. "I don't know if there was one event that made it sink in," Schweid says. "[But] when it … starts to hit your pocketbook, then you realize, hey, this is serious."79
A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and the March on Washington
The Black freedom struggle and the fight for economic justice were connected long before the southern civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. One of the most influential champions of both workers’ rights and African American civil rights during the first half of the twentieth century was A. Philip Randolph. Bayard Rustin discusses Randolph’s vision for the civil rights movement in his interview for America, They Loved You Madly, the predecessor to Eyes I.
A. Philip Randolph was a civil rights leader, labor activist, and socialist politician. In 1925, Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first majority African American labor union. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Randolph believed that after Black voting rights were secured and segregation in the South was abolished, a new front in the freedom struggle would present itself: the fight for economic equality. "Mr. Randolph understood something that very few people did," Rustin says in his interview. "He foresaw that a new period was coming and that that new period had to do with economics."
In 1941 Randolph, Rustin, and A.J. Muste planned a march on Washington, DC, to protest racial discrimination in war-related industries. They called it off, however, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, anxious about the potential for violence at the march, issued Executive Order 8802: Fair Employment Practice in Defense Industries. The order barred discrimination in defense hiring, though not in the armed forces. But in 1963, Randolph realized his longstanding ambition to stage a march on the capital when he spearheaded the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
According to Rustin, Randolph believed that sit-ins, marches, and other forms of nonviolent protest were effective methods for securing Black voting rights and equal access to public accommodations. He thought, however, that the coming fight for economic justice would require an emphasis on voter education and the formation of a united front made up of Black civil rights organizations, labor unions, and religious groups. For Randolph, the March on Washington marked the end of what Rustin calls ‘the demonstration period" and the beginning of a new period, one chiefly concerned with economic justice.
Like Randolph, Bayard Rustin was also a committed socialist and labor rights advocate. In the 1930s, he had ties to the Communist Party, which was a serious liability during the Cold War. So too was Rustin’s homosexuality; during an era of extreme sexual prejudice, Rustin lived openly as a gay man. As a result, Rustin was not widely known outside the movement, despite being one of its principal architects and most gifted organizers. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes, "Of all the leaders of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin lived and worked in the deepest shadows, not because he was a closeted gay man, but because he wasn’t trying to hide who he was."
This section identifies interview subjects who were boycotters, labor activists, and members of the business community. The first list includes the names of Montgomery bus boycott participants. The second features both labor activists and business owners who helped shape the trajectory of the civil rights struggle.
Montgomery Bus Boycotters
Ralph Abernathy: Founding member of the MIA, SCLC, and leader during the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Frances Belser: Montgomery bus boycotter
John Daniels: Montgomery bus boycotter
Clifford Durr and E. D. Nixon, bailed Parks out of jail following her arrest for defying segregation laws
E. D. Nixon: With Jo Ann Robinson, chiefly responsible for establishing the MIA; leader in the boycott
Mrs. Folgate: Montgomery bus boycotter
Georgia Gilmore: Montgomery bus boycotter; helped raise money to support the boycott
James Hoffman: Montgomery bus boycotter
Donie Jones: Montgomery bus boycotter
Coretta Scott King: Played an important administrative role in the MIA during the boycott
Rufus Lewis: Montgomery bus boycotter; cofounder of the MIA
Gussie Nesbitt: Montgomery bus boycotter
Jo Ann Robinson: Leader of the WPC and with E. D. Nixon, chiefly responsible for establishing the MIA
B. J. Simms: Director of transportation for the MIA; MIA promotional director
A. W. Wilson: MIA officer; introduced Martin Luther King, Jr. as the new MIA president at the association’s first meeting
Labor Activists and the Business Community
Victoria Gray Adams: Independent businesswoman, as well as activist and educator; helped lead a boycott against Hattiesburg businesses
William Coleman: Appointed by President Eisenhower to the President’s Commission of Employment Policy, which sought to increase minority hiring in government
A.G. Gaston: Businessman and Chamber of Commerce member who helped finance civil rights groups
E. D. Nixon: Montgomery, Alabama, NAACP chair; also led the Montgomery Welfare League and the Montgomery Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union, which he helped organize
Bernie Schweid: Co-owner of R. M. Mills bookstores in downtown Nashville, Tennessee, during the sit-in movement and boycott of downtown stores