Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South

[4 April 2013]

By Gavin Wright

Excerpted from Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South, by Gavin Wright (footnotes omitted). Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

A common perception is that the [Civil Rights] movement of the 1950s and early 1960s focused primarily on “rights,” turning only belatedly to matters of economic justice. The implication is that the major issues were legalistic and essentially symbolic, driven more by middle-class concerns over status than by the material struggles of ordinary people. James MacGregor and Stewart Burns write that the black freedom movement “did not make economic needs and aspirations high priority. At first glance the abundance of movement rhetoric about black poverty and joblessness and the obligatory demands for economic betterment seem to belie this. But if one looks at deeds not words, and to the deployment of movement resources, it is clear that economic rights were slighted – until it was probably too late to make a real difference.”

This really is a misperception. The Brown decision of 1954 did not represent a desire for “social equality” or “race-mixing,” but grew out of the decades-long struggle for racial equality in education, fundamentally an economic goal because of its importance for life chances. The NAACP argued, and the Supreme Court agreed, that segregation on the basis of race deprived black children of equal educational opportunity. One may question the integrationist strategy, as skeptics have done from the beginning, but not the economic character of the objectives.

Similarly, from the bus boycotts of the 1950s to the sit-ins of the early 1960s, demands for equal access to services were almost always coupled with demands for access to jobs providing those services.  In December, 1955, the Montgomery Improvement Association called for “employment of Negro bus operators in predominantly Negro residential sections,” a demand that was actually quite radical for the times because of the quasi-legal powers bus drivers held.  Flyers like the one displayed [below] from Warrenton, North Carolina, were circulated during public accommodations disputes throughout the region. The appeal for “equal opportunity for employment” and the complaint that stores “do not hire any Negroes in responsible jobs” are if anything more prominent than the demand for fountain service. In Birmingham, pickets wore sandwich boards reading “Don’t buy where you cannot be a salesman” and continued their pressure until each downtown department store hired at least one black clerk. Every school child knows that Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, but it is often forgotten that the event itself was billed as a March for Jobs and Freedom (emphasis added).

The public accommodations issue itself certainly had economic content, reflected in the hardships experienced by black travelers who could not count on finding a place to eat or stay overnight. It was not uncommon for families to pack meals, blankets and even containers of gasoline in their cars for long trips. Playwright Alexander Ramsey recalled: “We didn’t want to stop anywhere and get into a situation where we didn’t know how it was going to turn out.” It is true that media attention tended to focus on human-interest aspects of racial issues, and movement leaders often catered to this tendency. In Nashville, some activists argued strongly for an emphasis on economic issues, but as Reverend Kelly Miller Smith (chaplain of the local SCLC chapter) recalled:

We did not disagree with the fact that [the economic issue] was most important, but our view was that sit-ins would lend themselves to a kind of public presentation of the issue. Kind of a dramatizing of the issue that would be better than any procedures of which we were aware when dealing with economics.

However valuable as theater, participants clearly understood that sit-ins represented “something bigger than a hamburger,” as Ella Baker put it, launching an attack on racial discrimination “not only at lunch counters but in every aspect of life.”

The claim that the movement neglected economics only persists because most standard narratives omit the black labor struggle entirely. Black workers in southern industries fought against discrimination even in the 1930s and 1940s, an effort labor historians have called “Civil Rights Unionism.”  The fact that white fellow workers (as well as employers) were often adversaries does not deny the goal of economic advancement. Although these efforts were often thwarted, labor activists frequently supplied “foot soldiers” for the Civil Rights movement, attending meetings, writing letters, serving as guards at mass meetings and demonstrations, even in one case directing the choir of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights! A press release issued by the ACMHR at the height of the Birmingham conflict read: “Chief among the Negro requests are the immediate desegregation of lunch counter facilities and the establishment of fair hiring practice and job upgrading on a non-discriminatory basis.”

The grain of truth in the “rights to economics” scenario is that activists changed their line of attack from enactment to enforcement after passage of the Civil Rights Act. But Civil Rights pressure was directly responsible for the strength of the antidiscrimination sections of the Act. Because of the Kennedy administration’s deference to southern power in Congress, early drafts contained no fair employment provisions, but this omission was reversed in response to vigorous lobbying by groups allied in the Civil Rights Coalition. The post-enactment effectiveness of Title VII required grass-roots mobilization and extensive follow-up litigation, which were genuine though often overlooked parts of the Civil Rights Revolution. Willie Boyd, the Duke Power janitor who initiated the landmark Griggs case, was a veteran of NAACP youth work and sit-ins. Boyd and his fellow plaintiffs closely followed the course of the Civil Rights through Congress. Although the case was not decided until 1971, the job transfer application that launched was submitted March 1, 1966, directly invoking the new legislation.

Allegations that the movement “neglected economics” often boil down to a complaint that federal legislation mainly targeted the South, when the “big problems” (as Whitney Young said to President Kennedy) were northern. Southern economic problems were as big or bigger, but it is true that the Civil Rights Act avoided distinctively northern forms of discrimination, such as de facto school segregation and union seniority systems. Young’s warnings of a “tinder-box of racial unrest in northern cities” proved prophetic. But that is not the same as saying that the southern movement favored rights over economics. Economic goals were fundamental, and the Civil Rights Act was a true watershed in pursuing them.

Desegregation also opened clogged channels for outside investment into the region. In some instances the payoff was almost immediate. In 1965 the Milwaukee Braves announced plans to move to Atlanta, giving the South its first major league sports franchise. Star player Henry Aaron, who grew up in segregated Mobile, Alabama, at first expressed displeasure at returning to the South. But after local businessmen took him around town several times, Aaron said he wouldn’t mind playing in Atlanta. Within five years major league teams were playing in New Orleans and Dallas, moves that would have been unthinkable under segregation. Another liberating moment was the first performance of Porgy and Bess in Charleston, South Carolina, before an enthusiastic integrated audience on June 26, 1970. A 1974 New York Times article reported that “the arts have become the hottest growth stock in Dixie,” featuring Birmingham’s newly dedicated concert and theater hall. The story noted that public theater in Birmingham had been desegregated since the mid-1960s, when arts patron Mrs. Cecil Roberts walked down the aisle of an auditorium on the arm of Dr. John Nixon, local president of the NAACP.

Subsequent chapters discuss longer-term linkages between the Civil Rights revolution and regional progress. By broadening political representation and thereby assuring that blacks would share in new jobs and business opportunities, cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, and Birmingham were able to unite in support of growth-oriented projects such as airports, roads, health facilities, and municipal buildings. Acceptance of desegregation lessened local opposition to the pursuit of federal funds, a major source of infrastructure support in that era. Federal agencies insisted on nondiscrimination as a condition for funding, reinforcing local power- sharing even though enforcement was not always strict. The advent of black political power in cities was often viewed with deep suspicion by white business leaders. In time, however, the two sides found that mutually advantageous cooperation was better than protracted conflict or abandonment. The result was resumption of growth on a more racially inclusive basis. Ultimately Civil Rights tourism itself became an important component of the biracial agenda, reshaping the region’s civic self- image even as it augmented revenues.

To be sure, the case for mutually beneficial progress is clearer for business and professional classes than for working-class white southerners. But as will be shown, regional growth generated gains for all major segments of the population. One never observes white wages falling while black wages rise, nor black employment growing at the expense of white jobs. Despite the contentious debates over race and schools, southern white test scores continued their progress toward the national average throughout the period of desegregation. The course of progress since the 1960s has certainly not been smooth, but the fluctuations for both races have largely reflected higher-level forces affecting regional and national economies. In other words, the Civil Rights revolution was not a program of redistribution but an integration of blacks into the mainstream of a regional economy from which they had long been excluded.

Gavin Wright is William Robertson Coe Professor of American Economic History at Stanford University

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/170029-sharing-the-prize/