Downtown Boycott Hits Where It Hurts

“Protesters”. Volunteer Voices: The Growth of Democracy in Tennessee. Original Image: Special Collections Dept., University Libraries, University of Memphis.

March 2, 1968

An economic boycott by supporters of striking sanitation workers against major downtown businesses and businesses associated with prominent members of city government has stepped up in recent days.

Originally announced on February 16th by Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the effort started slowly but has picked up lately after Memphis police brutally suppressed a nonviolent protest march by striking workers on February 23rd.
That incident and the rejection of formal recognition of the union by the city council have since galvanized the local black community. Almost daily marchers wind through downtown wearing signs with slogans like, “Mace Won’t Stop the Truth” and “Keep Your Money in Your Pocket.”

Boycott organizers feel that pressure on downtown business owners would influence the mayor and members of the city council. For example, city councilman Philip Perel is a partial owner of the department store, Perel’s & Lowenstein’s. Perel witnessed the macing of protesters on the 23rd from the window of his downtown store and was heard to remark, “They ought to put the whole bunch in jail.”

The escalation of the boycott comes as the result of increased coordination by the black community in the wake of the macing. A strike strategy session on February 24th at Mason Temple saw the attendance of roughly 150 black ministers who, in the words of Rev. James Lawson, promptly urged their congregations to “stay away from downtown businesses…and from the businesses of the council members.” The ministers have since formed a regular group known as the Community on the Move for Equality (COME), meant to coordinate strategy in Memphis’s over 200,000 strong black community during the strike.

“Protesters”. Volunteer Voices: The Growth of Democracy in Tennessee. Original Image: Special Collections Dept., University Libraries, University of Memphis.

Led by the ministers, the boycott may have a significant effect on the upcoming Easter shopping season, normally a big draw for local businesses. Already ministers have put out the slogan, “No new clothes for Easter,” among their congregations.

Ministers further urged their congregations to cancel their subscriptions to two of the city’s major daily newspapers, the Commercial Appeal and the Press-Scimitar. Many black Memphians feel that their coverage of the strike has been biased; citing both papers’ support for the mayor and an offensive cartoon published by the Commercial Appeal depicting strikers as out of control vandals in the wake of a sit-in at city hall. Also cited is a cartoon published regularly by the Commercial Appeal called Hambone’s Meditations, which many describe as racist.

In a recent edition, the Tri-State Defender, one of the city’s two weekly black newspapers, ran a photo of Dr. Vasco Smith of the NAACP and the Shelby County Democratic Club holding up a copy of one of the daily papers while criticizing its’ “unfair news slanting.”

Other targets for the boycott include businesses associated with the family of Mayor Henry Loeb. William Loeb, the mayor’s brother, currently owns and operates a chain of barbeque joints and a chain of laundry cleaners. Together, both enterprises employ hundreds of people throughout the city. Though the mayor has no ownership stake in the businesses, strike supporters feel that boycotting them will be valuable symbolically. There have already been sporadic demonstrations in front of a number of locations.

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Harris, Edward and Sengstacke Jr., W.A. “Negro Community, Labor, Ministers Back Sanitation Workers.” Tri-State Defender (Memphis, TN), Mar 2, 1968.
Harris, Edward and Sengstacke Jr., W.A. “Strikers Mauled by Cops; Police Hits, Gasses Sanitation Workers; Boycott Slated.” Tri-State Defender (Memphis, TN), Mar 2, 1968.
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Sweat, Joseph. “2 Actions Attack Garbage Mounds.” Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), Feb 17, 1968.
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