On the Limits of Boycotts as a Political Tool

Students hold their hands up during a moment of silence while reading the names of victims from the recent Parkland high school mass shooting outside the White House in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018 (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg).

Corporate boycotts made headlines for the second time since October in the wake of the recent high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. After nineteen-year-old gunman Nikolas Jacob Cruz opened fire, killing seventeen people and injuring at least fourteen others, students and other activists from across the country took to the internet with #BoycottNRA. In the weeks since, Delta Airlines, Hertz, and many others have announced their intention of cutting ties with the gun advocacy group.

But how effective are boycotts? Should we be celebrating the corporations joining #BoycottNRA? Or should we be skeptical? While certainly not alone in deploying boycotts as a political tool, African Americans have much to contribute towards answering these questions. Boycotts, while often effective in the short-term at generating publicity, do not always produce the results their originators intended.

Deployed by anti-racist activists as far back as the abolition movement, boycotts have long featured prominently in African American freedom struggles. During the civil rights movement, boycotts were a prominent tool used by students, consumers, and civil rights leaders to combat discrimination in public and private life. Among the list of well-known boycotts was the Selective Patronage Movement led by Rev. Leon Howard Sullivan and his group of self-titled 400 ministers targeting local businesses in Philadelphia. Inspired by the national attention garnered by the Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-ins, which began in February 1960, the Selective Patronage Movement succeeded in opening up an estimated 2,000 new skilled jobs for African Americans in the city.1

The Selective Patronage Movement was widely heralded as a victory for the civil rights movement and was replicated by other organizations across the country including Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), but other boycotts revealed tensions between African Americans.2 In the summer of 1971, the Oakland Black Panther Party (BPP) announced a picket of Black-owned liquor stores following the latter’s refusal to contribute $10.00 per week to the BPP’s community programs. By way of explanation, BPP co-founder Huey P. Newton claimed that by refusing to donate to the program, Black businessmen were acting “in cahoots with racist police departments and white racist monopoly capitalists.”3 In other words, from the BPP’s perspective, Black businesses must support their community programs as proof of their commitment to dismantling white supremacy.

William Boyette, who took most of the heat from the BPP as head of the Black California Package Liquor Dealer Association, unsurprisingly opposed the boycott and filed charges of extortion against Newton and the BPP. While willing to donate food for the BPP’s free breakfast program, Boyette and other Black liquor dealers refused to subject themselves to the Panthers’ authority. Following several months of protests the parties reached an agreement brokered by Congressman Ronald Dellums. The final settlement involved the launch of “a new organization called the United Black Fund of the Bay Area Incorporated, to handle contributions from black businessmen to programs” including the BPP.4

Inspired by anti-apartheid leaders, the movement to sanction and divest from South Africa was driven by ordinary people (Photo: Syracuse Peace Council/the African Activist Archive).

Well-known among African American activists from the 1980s, the South African divestment movement raises somewhat different questions regarding the efficacy of boycotts, including their cooptation by corporations. Responding to demands made by students and other left-wing activists to cut ties with the brutally white supremacist Apartheid regime in South Africa, U.S. media outlets reported on a growing number of corporate and other institutional divestments beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s.5

The divestment movement played a crucial role in undermining the material and symbolic authority of the Apartheid government. Corporate involvement in the boycott, however, also enabled many American companies to claim moral authority on the issue while obscuring their continued business dealings with South Africa. Take Wang Laboratories, which alongside Polaroid Corporation became one of the first companies to join the boycott when they announced their plans to sell their South African subsidiary to locally-owned General Business Systems. Announcing their divestment in 1978, Wang retained a distribution agreement with General Business Systems, thus enabling them to continue profiting from the sale of Wang computers for many years after they divested. In 1985, Wang sold $18 million of computers in South Africa, up from $2.3 million in 1982.

Wang Laboratories was far from the only American company to use non-equity agreements to continue business dealings with South Africa. In 1987, The New York Times reported many American companies, including General Motors, General Electric, and IBM, continued selling goods in South Africa despite sanctions and divestment legislation. Rather than ending business ties with South Africa, sanctions and divestment encouraged American corporations to develop innovative mechanisms of bypassing government regulation while simultaneously bolstering their public image through widely publicized declarations in favor of divestment.

Let me be clear. Boycotts are a highly effective tool for pressuring businesses to act on a particular issue. In the cases of the Selective Patronage Movement, the BPP boycott of Black liquor dealers, and the Anti-Apartheid Movement highlighted above activists used boycotts to win major concessions, most notably widespread divestment that played a significant role in pressuring the South African government into negotiations with the African National Congress (ANC). Boycotts are also imperfect political tools in that activists do not control how corporations and other institutions choose to respond. Often those responses – setting up a special fund, pursuing non-equity agreements – are not in line with the initial goals of the boycott.

The precise impact of #BoycottNRA in terms of generating the conditions necessary for gun reform legislation remains to be seen. Substantive policy changes, not profits, are the ultimate goal. To this end, boycotts are likely to only go so far.

  1.  “Boycott Spreads Here: Movement Gains Supporters: Pickets Empty Stores at 52nd and Market, 40th and Lancaster,” Philadelphia Tribune, March 1, 1960
  2.  “Dr. Sullivan to Address Mass Meet,” Atlanta Daily World, October 28, 1962
  3.  Black Panther Party boycott of Bill’s Liquor store for the owner’s failure to contribute to the Party’s Community Survival Program, including meeting minutes of the California State Package and Store Tavern Owners Association, 1971-1972, History Vault, FBI Files on Black Extremist Organizations, Part 2: Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party.
  4. Ibid.
  5.  Milton Moskowitz, “U.S. Firms Feel the Head of Apartheid,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 1, 1985: 44.
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Jessica Ann Levy

Jessica Ann Levy is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. She received her doctorate from Johns Hopkins University in 2018 and is currently writing a book on the corporatization of the global black freedom struggle starting with Black Power in the 1960s and ending with the international anti-apartheid movement. Follow her on Twitter @jessicaannlevy.