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How Black Businesses Helped Save the Civil Rights Movement

By Louis Ferleger, Professor of History, Boston University and Matthew Lavallee, Graduate Student, Boston University. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

Behind towering figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. were the taxi dispatchers, pharmacists, grocers, and other small business owners who were instrumental in making civil rights a reality.

News that Montgomery police had arrested Rosa Parks on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on a bus spread quickly. Within twenty-four hours, leaders of the city’s black community called a meeting to propose a bus boycott. The next evening, leaders in the African American community gathered in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The leaders included small business owners, lawyers, clergy, teachers, postal workers and union leaders. Though all agreed on the necessity of a boycott, alternate transportation lingered as the final question of the meeting. The city’s relatively large network of black-owned taxi companies – eighteen companies operating approximately 210 cabs – provided the first solution. Each small taxi business eagerly offered its assistance, lowering its fares so that passengers paid the same as they would to ride the bus, lending critical tactical support to the early days of the boycott.[1]

But when city authorities learned that this network of small black-owned businesses was providing critical organizational support to the protest, the police began enforcing a minimum fare law, prohibiting the cabs from offering the same low fare as the busses. But this did not hinder the boycott in the way that white city leaders hoped because a volunteer carpool replaced the cheap taxi service. And with this solution, too, the assistance of the organizational network of small businesses proved vital. Black pharmacist Richard Harris worked tirelessly to orchestrate the carpool and offered his drugstore as a makeshift dispatch hub. Although city authorities prohibited one sector of small businesses from supporting the protest, another black-owned business filled the taxi companies’ void.[2]

The story of the Montgomery bus boycott usually focuses on two key figures: Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. But without the development of car pools and the support of small businesses, the boycott could not have succeeded. These stories demonstrate that the support of small black-owned businesses helped the civil rights movement to succeed in a variety of ways. King, for example, traveled widely during the civil rights movement. One magazine estimated that King travelled nearly 780,000 miles per year in the late 1950s as he preached against segregation.[3] Such wide travel would have necessitated considerable material support. Local businesses played a key role.

In Mississippi, black business owners were also on the front lines, enduring pressure from the white community. In addition to preaching at four different congregations, Reverend George Lee ran a prosperous printing business and a grocery store, positioning him as a prominent leader in Belzoni, Mississippi’s black community.[4] He was the first African American in Humphreys County to get his name on the voting list and organized the Belzoni, Mississippi branch of the NAACP in 1953 along with his friend Gus Courts, another grocery store owner. Lee and Courts registered hundreds of black voters in a county where no black person had voted since Reconstruction. In 1955, after regularly receiving telephone threats that said, “You’re number one on a list of people we don’t need around here anymore,” Lee was shot and killed while returning from picking up his preaching suit at the dry cleaners.[5] The investigating sheriff dismissed the death as merely an automobile accident and said the lead pellets lodged in what remained of his jaw were just dental fillings. Gus Courts then endured threats that wholesalers would not deliver goods to his grocery store and a local bank refused to do business with him unless he handed over NAACP records.[6] But this did not deter Courts. Despite threats that he would face a similar fate as Lee, he continued to push for voter registration. In response, white-owned gas stations stopped selling gasoline to him. Recognizing the power of black-owned enterprise, Courts started pooling money within the black community so that it could purchase its own gas station. After refusing to remove his name from the voter registration list, Courts was shot twice while standing inside his store, but survived.[7]

Black small business-owner George Washington refused to stop supporting the civil rights movement, leading a local oil supplier to remove the pumps at his gasoline station and distributors to refuse to deliver groceries to his store. In retaliation, his property was bombed and police arrested Washington for “failing to report the bombing.”[8] As in other states, Mississippi’s black community developed effective measures to counter such economic pressure thanks to the power of black-owned enterprise. In response to the economic reprisals conducted by the Citizens’ Councils, the national office of the NAACP established a war chest at the black-owned Tri-State Bank of Memphis. These funds could be lent to Mississippi activists to help evade the possibility of losing their homes, farms, or businesses.[9]

Amzie Moore, a World War II veteran, owned a gas station in Mississippi. He also endured frequent threats and a reporter in 1964 noted that Moore would receive three calls threatening his life in an evening.[11] Moore developed a relationship with Bob Moses when Moses was recruiting SNCC volunteers from Mississippi. But Moore flipped the recruitment drive on its head. Moore felt that, while it was fine for SNCC to recruit young people from Mississippi as it was doing, it would be even better if SNCC sent students into Mississippi to register voters.[12] Moore’s position in the community as the owner of a gas station also enabled him to assist with logistics, such as transportation for the volunteers. Moore even presented his proposal for SNCC students to assist voter registration to the SNCC conference and hosted meetings of leaders of the voter registration drive at his home in Cleveland, Mississippi.[13]

Histories of the civil rights movement that emphasize the glory and successes of charismatic leaders only tell part of the story. Small black-owned businesses were critical because they were empowered to engage in civic participation. These businesses were uniquely situated to support the civil rights movement and also parted the waters.

Footnotes

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), 46-52; Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 133.

[2] Branch, Parting the Waters, 145; King, Stride Toward Freedom, 75-79.

[3] Taylor Branch, The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 14.

[4] Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 36.

[5] Ibid., 37.

[6] Andrews, Freedom is a Constant Struggle, 94; Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 36.

[7] Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 38-9.

[8] Ibid., 94-5.

[9] Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 46.

[10] Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, 44.

[11] Ibid., 45.

[12] Branch, Parting the Waters, 330.

[13] Ibid., 345, 486.

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9 comments

  1. Carla

    Yves, thank you so much for helping to bring this piece of history to the light of day. I will be sharing it.

  2. Disturbed Voter

    Law of unintended consequences. The end of segregation, exposed Black businesses to White competition, and they mostly lost out. Destroying employment opportunity for young Black men and women. They no longer had as many Black community jobs to apply for, yet were still discriminated against (say before 1980) in the White workplace. This is how colonization works, you overcome an unprotected local market using a multinational behemoth like the British East Indies Company. Later, with so many more Black men with criminal records, or PTSD from Vietnam, the gift kept on giving.

    1. Norb

      This is a very important observation. Without continued solidarity, any progress made toward social justice can be rolled back. Referring to the present situation as corporate colonization might be a means to get a better handle on understanding why nothing changes.

      Without that understanding, people are fighting the wrong battles.

      1. Carla

        I will also ask those with whom I share the piece to be sure to check out the comments — thanks, D.V. and Norb.

  3. saurabh

    This was the impetus behind Black nationalism; white institutions can’t be trusted to represent black interests, and therefore blacks should segregate themselves and build their own communities, businesses, etc. Malcolm X and later the Panthers reached the same conclusion.

    Black nationalism has its own issues (a segregated nation still faces external hostility) but I think its main complaint, that whites will not accept blacks as part of their nation, the fundamental requirement of integration, remains unanswered fifty years later.

  4. Mary

    The article draws attention to the important role of Black business leaders at a point in history. Today those of us living in America are all living in a society in which the chartered banking system prefers other markets to the local business community. There are many reasons:

    1) banks that have gotten too big no longer have or want local market knowledge with which to accurately underwrite loans;
    2) this particularly affects Black owned businesses which are generally younger and smaller;
    3) since the end of the Clinton administration, the federal government has laxly enforced the one federal law which requires banks to serve local credit needs, the Community Reinvestment Act;
    4) the alternative credit industry – community development financial institutions or CDFIs – has 1000 organizations, a lot of talent and excellent performance – but inadequate scale as of yet.

    Readers can find 3 informative studies completed in 2016 and 2017 at the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, Aspen Institute and Expanding Black Business Credit. The question is how best to assure that there is a steady growth in profitably, Black owned businesses with leaders who play the role that business leaders always can play in building sound communities.

  5. Jim

    More than 16 years ago Christopher Lasch in his brilliant critique of the then existing left “The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics” noted that:

    “Inspired leadership alone, of course, does not explain the movement’s notable combination of militancy and moral self-respect….the success of the boycott also depended, initially at least, on the willingness of black cab companies to charge passengers the standard bus fare–a reminder that the black community in the South had other institutional resources besides the black church. It had stable families, businesses, newspapers, radio stations and colleges; and enough buying power in some localities to make boycotts an effective economic weapon.”

    Lasch understood clearly in 1991 that the Left was already on a downhill slide because of its conviction “that most Americans remain politically incorrigible–ultranationalistic in foreign policy, racist in their dealing with black and other minorities, authoritarian in their attitudes towards women and children which helps to explain why liberals relied so heavily on the courts and the federal bureaucracy to engineer reforms that might have failed to command popular support if they had been openly debated.”

    1. Disturbed Voter

      Virtue signalling is a two edged sword … both against your political opponents, but also exploitative of the group you are advocating.

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