By the early 1960s, the Civil Rights movement had gained national
momentum, but Birmingham, Alabama, remained one of the most segregated
cities in the South. Although African Americans made up more than 40
percent of the population, segregation ordinances prohibited them from
sharing any public facility with whites, from movie theaters to
restaurants. Mass meetings and demonstrations had mobilized the black
community, but also activated white resistance. In 1961, civil rights
leader Fred Shuttlesworth filed and won a lawsuit to desegregate the
city's 67 public parks. Police commissioner Eugene "Bull"
Connor retaliated by closing the city's parks.
In 1962, as part of a school project, Miles College student Frank Dukes
conducted research through the Chamber of Commerce to track the buying
power of Birmingham's black population. In an average week, African
Americans spent $4 million in downtown stores. However, many stores
refused to hire African Americans, let them try on clothes, or serve
them at their lunch counters. Inspired by student protests in other
cities and supported by Miles College president Dr. Lucius Pitts, Dukes
and fellow students organized a selective buying campaign that targeted
restaurants and stores in downtown Birmingham that discriminated against
Hundreds of African Americans signed a petition demanding equal
treatment and fair hiring practices, and the students presented it to
the city commissioners. Connor responded with racial epithets and
invited the students to leave Birmingham altogether. Because many of the
students technically didn't live in Birmingham, initially the business
owners didn't take them seriously.
The students then met with black women and asked them to boycott the
stores until the demands were met. Despite segregation, weekend shopping
in downtown stores represented an important cultural ritual for
Birmingham's black population, and it was hard for many African
Americans to forego those trips. Eventually the entire black community
participated, using buying power to leverage for equal rights. In
addition to boycotting, black women used their networks to distribute
flyers and raise bail money for demonstrators who got arrested. Biblical
terms on flyers reflected both the central role of the church in the
black community and the seriousness of the campaign.
The boycott lasted for several weeks. Because stores operated on a 12 to
15 percent profit margin, and black dollars made up 25 percent of the
gross revenue, the boycott created an economic crisis and forced white
business owners to listen to the students' demands. The boycott resulted
in the removal of "colored" signs in stores, helped set the
stage for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference's Birmingham campaign, and ultimately led to the
desegregation of Birmingham.
What is the significance of the term "sleeping giant?"Why did the organizers of the boycott use the phrase
"eleventh commandment"?What is meant by "Freedom is not free, Sacrifice for freedom,
Stand up for freedom?"