In what would become his last public speech, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, in Memphis, Tennessee, told the audience in Mason Temple that night:
Now the other thing we'll have to do is this: Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal... We don't have to argue with anybody. We don't have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don't need any bricks and bottles. We don't need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, "God sent us by here, to say to you that you're not treating his children right. And we've come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God's children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.
Further, he would say:
And so, as a result of this, we are asking you tonight, to go out and tell your neighbors not to buy Coca-Cola in Memphis. Go by and tell them not to buy Sealtest milk. Tell them not to buy -- what is the other bread? -- Wonder Bread. And what is the other bread company, Jesse (Jackson)? Tell them not to buy Hart's bread. As Jesse Jackson has said, up to now, only the garbage men have been feeling pain; now we must kind of redistribute the pain. We are choosing these companies because they haven't been fair in their hiring policies; and we are choosing them because they can begin the process of saying they are going to support the needs and the rights of these men who are on strike.
In short, what King called for was a massive economic boycott. He called for all Americans not to shop at places that did not offer "fair treatment to all of God's children." Indeed, at the time of King's death, he and his team were in the middle of planning the Poor People's Campaign in Washington, D.C. The goal was simple -- to get about a million people to Washington, D.C. and to have them camp outside all over the place -- effectively shutting down the city until government leaders met at least the minimum demands from the people. Of course, after King's assassination the next day, the movement never fully materialized.
When we talk about boycotts today, and many are quick to dismiss it all together. For instance, when people attempted to get support for a Florida boycott in response to the Zimmerman and Dunn verdicts and the repeal of Stand Your Ground laws, many said it simply would not work. Some analysts noted the "spotty records of boycotts" and wondered aloud how families would "cancel their vacations to Disney World." Others offered concern that boycotts "hurt the people they are attempting to help," while others simply argued that state boycotts do not work. To be sure, when talking about boycotts of any kind, many lecture us about how the times have changed, while others simply laugh at and mock us -- suggesting that we are too idealistic in our thinking.
While many celebrate what NBA Commissioner Adam Silver did by banning the Clippers' racist owner Donald Sterling from the NBA and will push for the league to have him sell his team, let us not forget what I believe was the catalyst in this strong reaction -- the players planned to boycott the games Tuesday night. Moreover, not only the Clippers and the Warriors, but also all games that night -- the Bulls and the Wizards, and the Thunder and my beloved Grizzlies. According to NBAPA vice president Roger Mason Jr., "players were prepared to sit out Tuesday night's Round 1 games if they were unsatisfied with the punishment levied by the league office." I guess they were not cowards after all.
So while the commissioner said that the "views expressed by Mr. Sterling are deeply offensive and harmful;" while the commissioner said that coming from "an NBA owner only heightens the damage and my personal outrage;" while the commissioner said that the "sentiments of this kind are contrary to the principles of inclusion and respect that form the foundation of our diverse, multicultural and multiethnic league;" and while the commissioner said that he was, "personally distraught" by "the views expressed by Mr. Sterling," there was something else helping him to the podium that day to take his strong position.
Hovering over his and the entire league's head was the threat of a player boycott. Businesses had already begun to withdraw their economic support from the Clippers and now the players prepared to play its trump card -- boycott. Yes, the players would have been affected, the league affected, the fans affected, the owners affected, the networks affected and all who work directly and indirectly would have been affected, but as King reminded us, in a boycott, the pain is redistributed to all.
Therefore, instead of saying that boycotts do not work -- we know from this incident and from many others that they do -- let us just say this: boycotts do not work when we do not care. Boycotts do not work when only a few people participate. Boycotts do not work when we figure we have too much to lose. Boycotts do not work when we can only see what we may lose instead of what we may gain. Boycotts do not work when we are only thinking about ourselves and not the collective; and yes, boycotts do not work when we are not ready to share in the pain that the boycott will bring. So yes, I guess in those cases, boycotts do not work.
However, when we stand collectively -- when we are prepared to make a statement, when we stand in our convictions, when we replace fear with faith -- boycotts, a nonviolent way to resist evil, tend to work. It is simple how everything we take for granted today, any so-called progressive idea or movement that we cherish and celebrate today came into being because somebody -- or better yet, some people, who many called crazy and foolish at the time -- decided to stand. Therefore, we do not have to cuss or fuss, execute any screaming or scheming, any cowering or bowing, just a simple request:
God sent us by here, to say to you that you're not treating his children right. And we've come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God's children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.
This post first appeared in the Rhetoric Race and Religion blog.