Black Workers and Consumers in the Long Civil Rights Movement

“Gifts from Saville Row” (Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)

As Amazon expanded from an online retail corporation into a transnational logistics operation with retail, content/entertainment, shipping, data and web services, and crowdsourced labor, it forced shopping malls to realign their business model. Large department stores, which had disappeared from urban downtowns by the 1990s, now disappear from many malls. Even stand-alone discount retailers like Walmart and Kmart have had to change practices. It is clear retail consumption remains a site of contest for consumers and workers seeking equitable access to resources and fair treatment.

In Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement: Workers, Consumers, and Civil Rights from the 1930s to the 1980s, Traci Parker offers a historical link between the current struggles and the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century. Parker’s central argument emphasizes the mutually reinforcing dynamic between Black people as workers and consumers and highlights the importance of the department store movement for civil rights activism and notions of Black liberation. These massive stores were fundamental because as “places of both employment and consumption, department stores promoted a racialized democracy even as they inadvertently exposed the blatant contradictions of a Jim Crow society espousing democratic ideals” (4).

The book contributes to the long Civil Rights Movement approach, with its challenge to mainstream history that tends to celebrate events like the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, 1955–1956 Montgomery bus boycott, 1963 March on Washington, and 1965 Selma marches with little or no attention to decades of layered activism beyond public schools, public transportation, and voting rights. Parker also questions a traditional labor historiography that claims the labor-oriented phase of the Black freedom movement peaked during the New Deal and World War II but was lost in the anti-communist, anti-union Cold War years. She argues African Americans remained committed to labor and economic rights.

Parker states Black consumers were central to the advancement of that economic equality. While the ability to unionize did narrow due to postwar federal policy and anti-union management tactics, the power of Black consumers increased. Civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) leveraged labor and consumption to push for economic equity and full citizenship. Black workers also continued to use unions, which cooperated on and deployed consumer boycotts. When civil rights history expands beyond the South and integration, readers see that Black economic power remained a priority for the freedom struggle and recognize the wider ties to department store activism in the North and Midwest.

The historic processes of class formation run throughout the book. Parker states that in the twentieth century, modern class identity was produced within consumer capitalism rather than by a worker’s position in industrial capitalism. Both consumption and occupation marked an individual as a certain status, with middle-class consumption habits indicating as much as a white-collar job. She also notes the increasing importance of consumption to the promises of US citizenship. As such, Parker asserts the importance of Black middle-class aspirations in the Civil Rights Movement — not as a limitation, but as a compelling, if complicated, force. These aspirations were expressed by both working- and middle-class African Americans, rather than imposed downward.

Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement follows a chronology over five decades, a time frame Parker emphasizes to make two key points. First, she wants readers to see how earlier actions impacted the more prominent events of the 1950s and 1960s. And she wants to show the persistence of the department store movement into the 1980s, when she argues suburbanization, urban deterioration, discount retailers, and the federal government’s muddled approach to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and affirmative action forced its end.

In the first chapter, readers learn about the significance of department stores in the 1910s and 1920s. The palatial city stores were arbiters of middle-class taste and respectability and instruments of social mobility — where working-class consumers and store employees could learn about products and earn the money to buy them. Department stores were central to the promise of American prosperity and the “democratization of desire” in a market-oriented democracy (16). For Black men and women who had been relegated to the dirtiest, heaviest labor and to buying from sharecrop landowners or segregated country stores, department stores held out tremendous possibilities. While department stores wanted Black consumers, however, they were also enforcers and symbols of white superiority.

Chapters two through five discuss the stages of the department store movement from its foundation. The 1930s “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns in several cities manifested the realities of Black Americans as consumers and workers. Parker deftly dissects the various organizations and leaders and the ways they compromised or cooperated to demand more jobs for Black workers. It took another decade and World War II to demand not only more jobs, but also better jobs, higher wages, promotions, and better treatment for Black customers. Parker presents an incredible range of detail regarding the peak years of the movement in the 1950s and makes critical connections to the more visible lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s. These organizational and ideological connections support the long Civil Rights Movement approach and also make clear the scope of activism, over many years and sites, needed to instigate broad social change.

Parker argues the 1973–1986 EEOC suits with Sears, Roebuck, & Co. marked the end of the department store movement. One failed EEOC suit did not cause that end, but rather the convoluted results of multiple suits occurred at a crucial time as department stores declined. The EEOC’s lack of clarity regarding Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and how to address “race and sex” left Black retail workers without employment protections. Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement illustrates the importance of realizing that the EEOC’s determination that complaints from Black women workers would be defined as “sex discrimination” was a mishandling of their “intersectional identities and oppressions” (212).

Parker describes several convergences that brought about the end of the department store movement, including suburbanization, urban decay, and discount retailers. One area that could use more analysis is the notion of “urban decay.” An increasing number of scholars question this language and seek to complicate the declension narrative that dominates the discussions of both cities and labor in the 1970s and 1980s. When the ascendance of finance capitalism becomes part of the history, it exposes the intentional reconfiguration of urban commercial real estate, investment, and political power. Rather than using terms like “urban decay,” which naturalizes such conditions, or “deindustrialization,” which is linear and ignores global capital currents, these scholars analyze the expanding role of the financial sector in cities. Much of this recent scholarship has not centered race or the impacts on Black consumers and workers.

Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement provides a brief analysis of the 1970s to 1980s split between low-income Black workers and the Black middle class. Other historians have noted that department stores moved to suburban malls; companies relocated factories to cheaper and modernized suburban or Sun Belt industrial sites; and white residents left city cores in increasing numbers. As these relocations played out, working-class African Americans lost the best jobs for financial stability and social mobility. Parker argues these changes also undermined the “linked fate” that had united African Americans of different classes.

The theory of linked fate proposes that Black people across class and gender cooperated in a larger movement for “the race’s economic enfranchisement,” even as they pursued individual social mobility because everyone benefited from every advancement (151). In the 1970s and 1980s, however, an increasing number of middle-class Black people took advantage of the legal end to employment and real estate discrimination, increased their income, and moved to prestigious urban neighborhoods or suburbs. Poor and lower-class Black people usually remained bound to segregated core city neighborhoods. During these years, African Americans also split on tactics, as the middle class saw such benefits in uplift and respectability whereas many low-income Black residents questioned and abandoned these ideas (221).

Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement closes with an intriguing perspective on consumer capitalism and the increasing importance of acquisition over the service experience of consumption. The promise of department stores had been not only the products, but also the respect and pampering offered by specialty staff. While affluent consumers still demand this signifier of class and status, middle-class and low-income consumers have lost it. The simple transaction of acquiring and displaying a consumer product has become their signifier, with certain goods like Nike sneakers taking on potent significance. Even as stores and online retailers shimmer with the appearance of democratization, race and class still impact consumption while retail workers grapple with precarious employment, low wages, and lack of benefits.

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Aimee Loiselle

Aimee Loiselle is a Research Fellow with the Reproductive Justice History in Action Project at Smith College. She has a PhD in History from the University of Connecticut and specializes in the histories of working women, gender, and race with attention to both labor and economics. Her current project examines the extended circumstances that led to the contested production of the 1979 movie "Norma Rae," as well as the cultural work the film did to constitute a narrow notion of the white “American working class” in the 1980s.

Comments on “Black Workers and Consumers in the Long Civil Rights Movement

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    This is a fascinating and insightful historical document. Thank you for publishing it.

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