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By Bill Bradberry

Boycotts have historically been the most powerful weapon in the Civil Rights struggle. They arise out of the pain of social injustice, seeking redress of real and sometimes perceived grievances.

The formula is basic. Aggrieved customers simply stop supporting the offending business until the cost of discriminating against them is greater than the benefit of continuing their offensive behavior.

Perhaps the best example of the boycott as a tool for social change is the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It arose out of the arrest of Rosa Parks for her refusal to obey a local ordinance requiring black bus passengers to give up their seats to whites. Black people refused to ride the buses for more than one year. The well-organized effort brought the bus company and local merchants to their economic knees, and eventually to their senses, when they began to realize that the lost profits were not worth the cost of keeping the races separated.

The Supreme Court helped by extending the Brown v. Board of Education case, which knocked down the separate but equal provisions in education, to public transportation.

But the benefit did not end there. As a result of his major accomplishment in Montgomery, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. went on to Atlanta, where in 1957 he and other ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Under King's presidency, SCLC kept alive the nonviolent fight for fair political representation and real economic power. It created a legacy, says writer Roberta Wright, which "helped to launch a 10-year national struggle for freedom and justice that stimulated others to do the same at home and abroad."

Over the past 50 years, the boycott, or the threat of one, has been successfully employed not just in the Civil Rights arena, but in sports and business as well.

"Shakedown," right-wing political journalist Kenneth Timmerman's biting assault on Jesse Jackson, portrays Jackson as the best at the game of extracting millions of dollars from corporate giants like Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, Paine Webber, Goldman Sachs, Coca-Cola, Texaco, Viacom, AT&T and Boeing, enriching his sons and cronies in the process. Timmerman accuses Jackson of diverting dollars and contracts from Anheuser-Busch and Coca-Cola and then parlaying his ill-gotten gains and political connections into a seat in Congress for his son Jesse Jr.

All of these benefits came as the result of nonviolent negotiations, the mere threat of a boycott to address years of illegal racial discrimination by the huge corporations.

In fact, a growing number of frustrated, black, middle-class professionals are becoming enraged by the failure of the system to make the dream of economic success come true for them. The failure of the promise that if you worked hard, went to school, and played by the rules, you would achieve the American Dream still haunts those blacks who stay the course. For most, it's still a dream deferred. Ellis Cose, in his 1993 "The Rage of a Privileged Class," points to the ugliness of racism as the culprit, regardless of blacks' academic and professional progress.

He comments that "the pervasiveness of segregation in America's large cities is beyond dispute, as is the wickedness of a system that exhorts blacks to escape the ghetto and its associated pathologies and then batters them for trying Even blacks who manage to 'escape' often encounter problems of another sort. The benefits of material success do not include exemption from being treated as a 'nigger.'"

But Cose goes on to say, "By any reasonable criteria, African-Americans, at least those who are well-educated and enterprising, have more opportunities than ever. Despite the belly-aching of well-to-do blacks, many are doing much better than most whites. In a world where no one is guaranteed success or even a fair shake, shouldn't the well documented stereotype-shattering triumphs of the black middle class be more than enough to satisfy anyone?"

Cose further acknowledges that "it would probably be healthier for all concerned if the current dialogue about racial justice focused much less than it has thus far on issues of guilt and victimization. Making someone feel sorry for you, after all, is not the same as getting them to recognize you as an equal -- or even as a human being. At most, it provides a foundation for charity, or for what is perceived as charity -- for which one is expected to be appropriately grateful, even if what is offered is not what one needs or feels one deserves."

Cose, a contributing editor at "Newsweek" and most recently the author of "The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man In America," probably laid the ground-work for black conservative writers like Thomas Sowell and John McWhorter. In the controversial "Losing the Race: Self Sabotage In Black America," McWhorter argues that it is neither a lack of black brain power, nor an excess of white racism, that holds black people back. Rather, it is "a dysfunctional black culture; not just a 'ghetto culture' that derides black achievement." He identifies three self-destructive elements in contemporary black America -- victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism.

Such hard-hitting comments coming from McWhorter, a Linguistics Professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has won him harsh criticism from liberals, such as "Time" magazine columnist Jack E. White, who have referred to McWhorter as "a hero for the black-bashing crowd" and accused him of peddling overly simplistic and damaging stereotypes.

In a 2001 interview with "Reason" magazine, McWhorter was asked, "Have you looked at other cultures?" He replied, "The Irish were known to be anti-intellectual people before they became 'white.'"

No doubt the debate on the boycott as a tool for effecting social change will go on for some time. But the costs and benefits are clear. Take the continuing ethnic saga in the city of Miami Beach where Nelson Mandela's 1990 visit turned into an "ethnic donnybrook" after local politicians shunned the African leader, ostensibly because he had publicly thanked Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat for their support in his struggles against apartheid in South Africa.

The effort by local politicians to mollify the Cubans and the Jews sparked outrage in the African-American community, which responded with a three-year black convention boycott of the entire Miami area. The boycott badly tarnished Miami's already corroding reputation, costing the area economy at least $50 million in lost revenues.

But the boycott also yielded substantial benefits, leading to the establishment of the Visitor Industry Council, which is exclusively dedicated to the expansion of black participation in the local tourism industry through mentorship and scholarship programs.

The most visible benefit of the Miami boycott was the $10 million loan from the city for construction of the first African-American-owned luxury resort in the nation, set to open this season.

The $84 million, 422-room Royal Palm Crowne Plaza is composed of two art deco hotels, the reconstructed Royal Palm and the Shorecrest. The resort has already booked the NAACP's 2003 National Conference. R. Donahue Peebles, president of Atlantic Development Corporation and the majority owner of the Royal Crowne Plaza, said at a recent press conference, "The opening of our hotel allows Miami-Dade to say to the African-American community, locally and nationally, that a promise was made, and a promise is being kept."

Andy Ingraham, head of the National Association of Black Hotel Owners and Developers, points out that "nationally, black workers hold between 30-35 percent of the industry's entry-level positions, but there are fewer than 60 black executives in the nation's 30,000 full-service hotels and just 36 of the country's 80,000 limited- and full-service hotels are black owned, along with about 40 smaller inns."

Peebles says he expects to gross $30 million in the first year with opening room rates approaching $200 a night. Industry insiders claim the venture should draw a good portion of the black tourism market, valued at $36 billion in 2001.

In Cincinnati, where the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati has imposed a boycott against the convention industry in response to the killing of 15 black men and boys by policemen since 1995, black entertainers as well as conventions are canceling their bookings, resulting in $20 million in lost revenues.

Last Friday, actress Whoopi Goldberg canceled her sold-out June 12 appearance at the Aronoff Center for the Arts, joining Bill Cosby, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and singer Smokey Robinson, who have also bowed out.

Cincinnati has a 43 percent black population, mostly squeezed into a racially segregated area known as "Over-the-Rhine," where census data shows more than 80 percent live at or below the poverty line.

Cincinnati exploded last April 7, 2001, when police took the life of 19-year-old Timothy Thomas. Thomas was wanted on more than a dozen misdemeanor warrants. On that night, he was spotted by two off-duty officers working outside the Warehouse nightclub. Thomas ran and was chased by 12 officers. One of them, Officer Steve Roach, confronted him at the end of a dark alley, where he says Thomas appeared to reach for something in his waistband. Officer Roach fired one fatal shot into Thomas' chest, killing him. No weapon was found on Thomas.

The shooting launched a week of protests and violence unseen since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Officer Roach was indicted by a grand jury on a misdemeanor charge. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating.

The Coalition For a Just Cincinnati boycott is demanding, among other things, an end to social and economic apartheid, economic development, $100 million in federal grant funds, $208.2 million in city funds and $2.3 billion in loans, grants and services from the city, the private sector and non-profit organizations.

They are also demanding an investigation into allegations of improper use of the city's Housing and Community Development programs, increased and improved job training, the reprioritization of city and county budget plans for the downtown business district, the riverfront, and high-income neighborhoods at the expense of low-income neighborhoods, and a reinvestment in public schools and public health programs.

While it is too early to know what the benefits may be of the Cincinnati boycott, the costs are becoming clear to downtown businesses which are already losing money.

Last week City Councilman Paul Booth said he invited former president Jimmy Carter, Martin Luther King III, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman to come to Cincinnati to mediate talks between the city, the Black United Front and the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati.

So far, he says, only King has agreed to come.

The former head of the Niagara Falls Equal Opportunity Coalition, Bill Bradberry now works as an advocate and writer in Florida. You may email him at

Niagara Falls Reporter April 2 2002