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The economic activism of the civil rights movement

With the deaths of Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees John Lewis and Cordy Tindell "C.T." Vivian on Friday following the death of honoree Joseph E. Lowery in March, the world has lost three vanguard leaders who conceived and led a revolutionary movement that changed the U.S. forever.

Why it matters: As fewer of these men remain to tell the story of how they engineered the civil rights movement, it's important to remember the economic and strategic vision that fueled it.


What happened: The civil rights movement was a coordinated and multifaceted effort that took aim at the economic engine of businesses upholding the era's racist policies.

  • Bus boycotts, Freedom Rides, sit-ins, buyers' strikes and sidewalk demonstrations were all leveraged to pit businesses' interest in making money against their interest in upholding racial segregation.

What it means: The bus boycotts coordinated by Martin Luther King Jr. and others drained transportation systems of revenue by instructing their primary customers not to ride and providing alternative sources of transport.

  • The Freedom Rides, led in part by Lewis, pitted local officials who pulled Greyhound buses off the roads to confront mixed race riders against shareholders at Greyhound who needed bus lines to operate.
  • The sit-ins and other actions at public facilities, directed in large part by Vivian, urged Black citizens to occupy "Whites only" lunch counters, waiting rooms and entertainment venues where refusing them service meant no one was served and no money was made.
  • Strikes, like the famous "I am a man" protest led by sanitation workers in which more than 10,000 tons of garbage piled up in Memphis, showed the economic value of underpaid Black workers.

What they said: "It was the strategy," Vivian told me in an interview while I was a reporter at the Atlanta Daily World.

  • "That strategy of nonviolent direct action — that’s what won. That’s what made the difference."

The big picture: These economic actions worked in tandem with efforts to bring media attention to marches and demonstrations where peaceful protesters were beaten savagely by armed mobs, often with the support and/or active participation of local police.

  • The media exposure helped kindle support for the movement's crown jewel, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which brought together the heads of numerous civil rights groups along with 250,000 supporters to show lawmakers that the cause of civil rights had become mainstream.

"No revolution has ever been successful without winning the sympathy, if not the active support, of the majority," Bernard Lafayette, who has led numerous civil rights organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with King, told me during an interview for the 50th anniversary of the march in 2013.

  • "The March on Washington was the part of the strategy to demonstrate that the majority of people in America were ready for change."

The last word: "Many of us were coming fresh from the heart of the Deep South, some of us fresh from jails," Lewis told me in 2013, ahead of the march. "We had seen people beaten, arrested and jailed and we wanted to send a powerful message that things had to change."

  • "I leave for Washington tonight and I go back with the greatest sense of hope and greatest sense of optimism and part of it is what I have witnessed over the past 50 years. I’m very optimistic about the future."

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