Forgive me for repeating what so many people already know, which is that the civil-rights movement in this country really gained traction after Dec. 1, 1955. That was the day Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery, Ala., bus and was arrested. She rightfully occupies a revered place in history, but it’s what happened next that forced the unraveling of cruel Jim Crow segregation and started the nation down a long road to equality that we still are traveling.
The next day, the city’s blacks, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., organized a boycott of city buses. It didn’t take long before a lack of riders caused serious economic damage to Montgomery’s transit system, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The point is that progress may be rooted in principle, but it’s achieved by tightening the financial vise. Which brings us to modern times. Actually, in many ways, we’re still living in the dark ages, often held back by craven officials buckling under the demands of malignantly selfish big-money interests. The powerful aren’t about to give up any privilege until they’re hit right in their hearts, which is to say, their wallets. It’s as true today as it was just more than 58 years ago: There’s no better way to force progress than a boycott.
There are so many opportunities: For those in an uproar over the way A&E has handled “Duck Dynasty,” it’s as easy as can be: Don’t watch the network, and maybe avoid buying from the show’s sponsors. There is a huge amount of handwringing about how the infamous Koch brothers use their fortune to stymie regulation, fair taxation and labor rights. Simplicity itself : Koch Industries owns Georgia Pacific, which makes a ton of consumer products, including Brawny paper towels and Northern tissue. Need I say more?
Furthermore, who really needs to eat at Chick-fil-A? Or Cracker Barrel? The list goes on and on. And it’s a tactic that those on the other side can use. Many are upset over the various positions espoused by Warren Buffett. What does he own? What doesn’t he own? Berkshire Hathaway subsidiaries range from GEICO Insurance, which is so easy to reject that even a caveman can do it, to Dairy Queen to Fruit of the Loom.
On the left and the right the targets abound; so many chances to make your voices heard by organizing a boycott. With some specific limitations, boycotts are legal — the right to buy whatever legitimate goods you want obviously implies a right to not buy them — and there are few restrictions on organizing such an effort. An attorney can advise on the finer points, but the broader one is that the super-rich are not impervious. They may spread a teeny bit of their wealth to officeholders to bully them into creating laws to protect them from the constraints imposed on the less fortunate or dilute the ones that might rein in their corrupt activities, but they can’t coerce their customers.
They can try to persuade with advertising, but if the consumers can focus on their social or political priorities, and then stop buying from those whose conduct or positions they find objectionable, then you might see some better behavior.
To see how skittish they can be, look no further than A&E. First, Phil Robertson was suspended from the show, which was a meaningless gesture, but it was a gesture. Obviously, executives decided they didn’t want to offend those who sympathize with the gay-rights movement. But then the right went into a snit, and the powers-that-be hurriedly suspended the suspension. “Duck Dynasty” flies again!
The same thing happened at Cracker Barrel restaurants. They moved back and forth in a big hurry. Since government is unresponsive, the boycott might be a more effective legal way to fight cultural and financial battles. It’s worked before. It can now.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.