The boycott, then and now

 

by Mark Engler
 

To The Teacher:

The boycott is one of the most powerful, time-tested tactics that social movements have at their disposal. History offers many examples of people joining together to exercise their power as consumers in support of movements for social justice, civil rights, and workers' rights. By calling for people to not spend their money on a target good or service, boycotts can aid these movements by drawing on a wider base of supporters who would otherwise be unable to participate.

This lesson examines the historical development of the boycott as a tactic - with examples of its use by both progressives and conservatives - and looks at some recent boycotts that are related to hot-button political issues.

The first student reading considers the history of the boycott in the United States, reviewing some famous examples of how it has been used. The second reading examines some recent boycotts, with focus on the online advocacy group ColorOfChange.org. This group launched a campaign pressuring advertisers that supported controversial right-wing commentator Glenn Beck. They also launched a boycott targeting a group that championed Florida's "Stand Your Ground" gun law, which drew attention in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. The reading explores how these campaigns developed and considers responses from conservative critics - including calls for a counter-boycott.

Questions for student discussion follow each reading. 
 


Student Reading 1: 

The boycott: an American tradition

The boycott is one of the most powerful, time-tested tactics that activists have at their disposal. History offers many examples of people joining together to exercise their power as consumers in support of movements for social justice, civil rights, and workers' rights. By calling for people to not spend their money on a target good or service, boycotts can compel a targeted company to change its behavior so it can win back customers and ward off economic damage.

Two of the most famous American boycotts are the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the United Farm Workers' (UFW) grape boycott. Both of these successful boycotts emerged in the context of the social and political upheavals of the 1950s and 60s.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott is the first boycott most Americans learn about in school. The boycott is considered one of the most important episodes in the southern struggle for civil rights, and is best remembered for some of its central participants: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ralph Abernathy.

Like many Southern cities, Montgomery, Alabama, rigidly enforced "Jim Crow" laws for racial segregation. On buses, this meant that black riders were required to sit in the back while white riders got seats in the front. Black riders were expected to surrender their seats to white riders when a bus was full.

The boycott began on December 1, 1955 when Rosa Parks, a trained activist, refused to surrender her seat to a white rider and was arrested. For more than a year, the black community of Montgomery overwhelmingly avoided using the city's buses, organizing carpools or walking long distances instead. Protesters faced a harsh, often violent backlash. Nevertheless, their persistence started paying off in June 1956, when a federal district court ruled that Alabama's segregation of buses was unconstitutional. In November, the United States Supreme Court upheld the district court's ruling and a Montgomery ordinance finally desegregated buses in the city.

Not only was the Montgomery Bus Boycott successful in ending segregation on a local level, news images of the action galvanized public support for the civil rights cause nationally. As The Nation magazine explains:

For 381 days, despite brutal harassment, and no protection from the state or federal government, the boycott endured. When it finally ended on December 27, 1956, not only was it a complete victory for the black community, but the civil rights movement had a new leader in King and a momentum that over the next ten years would destroy nearly every vestige of Jim Crow that had plagued the South and the nation since the Civil War. 
(http://www.thenation.com/learning-pack/montgomery-bus-boycott)

Another important boycott was organized by the United Farm Workers (UFW). Through much of the first half of the 20th century, labor union organizers had attempted unsuccessfully to bring California's farm workers into a union. These workers were largely immigrants from Latin America and Asia who labored under harsh conditions with little pay. Organizers finally began to make headway in the 1950s under the leadership of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, who in 1962 co-founded the organization that later became the UFW.

To build support for their on-the-ground organizing efforts, the UFW called on people throughout the country to stop eating grapes. Documentarian Rick Tejada-Flores writes on the PBS website:

By 1967 farmworkers were enlisting consumers in their battle. When the Giumarra Corporation tried to disguise their shipments by using other grape growers' labels, the farmworkers began a national boycott of all table grapes. Striking farmworkers spread out across the country, forging alliances with students, churches, and consumers and other union members to try to stop the sale of grapes….

At its height, more than 14 million Americans helped by not buying grapes. The pressure was irresistible, and the [California] growers signed historic contracts with UFWOC in 1969. (http://www.pbs.org/itvs/fightfields/cesarchavez1.html)

The boycott was effective because it allowed people across the country who were sympathetic to the UFW organizing effort but unable to participate directly to lend meaningful support to the cause.

While boycotts are often associated with politically liberal causes, they are sometimes used for conservative ends. In 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention launched a boycott of the Walt Disney Company in response to the company's decision to extend health care and other benefits to the partners of gay employees. As the Associated Press reported in June 2005, when the boycott officially ended:

Southern Baptists ended an eight-year boycott of the Walt Disney Co. (DIS) for violating "moral righteousness and traditional family values" in a vote on the final day of the faith's annual convention Wednesday…

The Disney resolution, passed at the SBC's 1997 convention in Dallas, called for Southern Baptists to refrain from patronizing Disney theme parks and Disney products, mainly because of the entertainment company's decision to give benefits to companions of gay employees. (http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,160382,00.html)

Unlike the grape boycott and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Disney boycott was ultimately unsuccessful in forcing any substantive changes in behavior from the campaign's target.

For Discussion:

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What is a boycott? What does it aim to do?

3. What was the goal of the Montgomery Bus Boycott? What impacts did it ultimately have?

4. While the Montgomery Bus Boycott primarily drew on local participation, the UFW grape boycott depended on the participation of people from across the country. How do you think this affected the character of the action?

5. Why do you think the Montgomery Bus Boycott and UFW grape boycott were successful while the SBC's boycott of Disney failed?

 


Student Reading 2: 

ColorOfChange.org and the Boycott Today 
 

The boycott remains a tactic that is regularly deployed in political life, including in the past year. A progressive online advocacy group called ColorofChange.org has gained notable success with two campaigns: one to encourage sponsors to leave conservative pundit Glenn Beck's television program and another to put pressure on companies supporting a right-wing legislative group called ALEC. Liberals see these two campaigns as effective political interventions. But conservatives say that the campaigns unfairly sought to limit the free expression of ideas.

On July 28, 2009, the controversial conservative commentator and Fox News Channel host Glenn Beck appeared on the daily talk show "Fox and Friends" to discuss recent news. When the conversation turned to President Obama's response to a racially charged incident that was in the headlines, Beck called the president himself a racist, charging that President Obama held "a deep seated hatred for white people or the white culture."

Beck's inflammatory remark provoked an immediate backlash. ColorOfChange.org launched a petition calling on Beck's advertisers to terminate their sponsorship of the program. The petition received nearly 300,000 signatures and advertisers began leaving in droves. In total, nearly 400 advertisers ended their support of Beck's program. To strengthen their case to advertisers, ColorOfChange activists also documented other extreme comments that Beck had made.

Ultimately, Fox News chose not to renew its contract with Beck, whose program on that network ended in June 2011. Fox News executives denied that ColorOfChange had anything to do with their decision not to extend Beck's contract, stating, "The advertisers referenced have all moved their spots from Beck to other day parts on the network, so there has been no revenue lost." But Eric Boehlert of the progressive media watchdog group Media Matters offered a contrary view in an April 7, 2011 article:

The television industry is built around supply and demand. Glenn Beck has supply in the form of roughly 20 minutes of advertising time sold each episode. And it wants to build demand. Usually, healthy ratings drive that demand since advertisers want to reach the masses. But if suddenly hundreds of advertisers raise their hand and announce they'd be happy to spend money with Fox News, but not on Glenn Beck, then the show's demand plummets, but the supply - the 20 minutes of advertising inventory - remains the same.

Bottom line? The ad rates go down.... As Brad Adgate, director of research for the ad-buying giant Horizon Media, noted in an email to me yesterday: "Ad rates are predicated on supply and demand, not ratings. If the show has low demand and an oversupply of advertiser inventory, the show will not get premium ad pricing no matter how many viewers." (http://mediamatters.org/blog/201104070011)

In a typical boycott, a group of consumers withhold their patronage of a particular good or service until the company heeds its demands. In the case of ColorOfChange.org's campaign against Glenn Beck, it was the implied threat of a consumer boycott that led companies that advertised on Beck's program to withdraw their sponsorship.

A similar dynamic appeared in early 2012 when ColorOfChange.org set its sights on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative thinktank known for championing right-wing causes. One such cause is the Florida "Stand Your Ground" gun law, which drew attention in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting. ( Under the law, an individual has no "duty to retreat" before resorting to the use of deadly force for self-defense. See our TeachableMoment lesson.)

ColorOfChange.org decided to act on public outrage about ALEC's support of Stand Your Ground and of "voter ID laws," which critics say disproportionately prevent poor people and people of color from voting. ColorOfChange.org decided to focus public pressure on the various companies that pay $25,000-per-year dues to ALEC. ColorOfChange.org launched a petition drive, urging people to write to these organizations expressing their concern. A sample letter written by ColorOfChange.org stated:

I presume your company does not want to support voter suppression, nor have your products or services associated with discrimination and large-scale voter disenfranchisement. I urge you to immediately stop funding ALEC and issue a public statement making it clear that your company does not support discriminatory voter ID laws and voter suppression.

In response to the campaign, a string of companies, including Wendy's, McDonald's, Coke, Pepsi, and Kraft, all announced that they were leaving ALEC. In response, ALEC retreated from some of its most controversial positions, stating that it was "eliminating [its] Public Safety and Elections task force that dealt with non-economic issues" such as Stand Your Ground and Voter ID.

Liberal critics of ALEC regarded the announcement as a victory. However, many conservatives were unhappy that corporations had backed away from their financial commitment to the group's legislative advocacy. In a column for the Concord Monitor entitled, "Why Are Liberals So Scared of ALEC," State Representative Jordan Ulery argued that the boycott represented an unfair suppression of ideas. "[T]he fringe left is apparently opposed to open thinking and discussion of legislation," he wrote.

Ulery's complaint notwithstanding, others called for conservatives to adopt the boycott tactic for their own purposes: namely, punishing companies that decided to leave ALEC. At National Review Online, commentator Michelle Malkin wrote:

Let's stipulate: Activists on the left are free to exercise their rights of speech and assembly to boycott businesses whose politics they oppose. Conversely, activists on the right are free to exercise the power of their pocketbooks and refrain from supporting businesses that shun their values… It's time for conservatives to stand their ground and stop showing these corporate cowards their money.

For Discussion:

1. Do students have any questions about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why did ColorOfChange.org choose to target Glenn Beck? Why did it later target the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)?

3. With its two campaigns, ColorOfChange.org did not actually boycott any specific corporation, it merely created the implied threat of a boycott. How did the group do this?

4. Conservative legislator Jordan Ulery believes that the ColorOfChange.org boycotts represented an unfair suppression of ideas. Do you agree or disagree? Why?

5. In contrast, Michelle Malkin argues that conservatives should launch a boycott of their own. What do you think would be the result of two competing boycotts?

6. ColorOfChange.org used the internet as a primary vehicle for spreading the word about its petitions and getting people to sign on. How do you think the existence of the Internet has affected the boycott tactic? In what ways might the tactic evolve further in the future?

 

 

This lesson was written by Mark Engler for TeachableMoment.Org, with research assistance by Eric Augenbraun.

We welcome your comments. Please email them to:lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.