|Publisher:||Harvard University Press|
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About the Author
Gavin Wright is William Robertson Coe Professor of American Economic History at Stanford University.
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter Three: Southern Business and Public Accommodations, An Economic-Historical Paradox
If private-sector desegregation was up for grabs in the early 1960s, when did the tide turn, and what was the cause? A perusal of the pages of national retail trade periodicals such as Women’s Wear Daily tells a central part of the story: sit-ins and boycotts did real damage to retail businesses, especially in the downtown shopping districts of southern cities. The losses had at least two components: denial of black patronage for political reasons, and diversion of white customers deterred by disruption and turmoil. The Woolworth’s manager in Greensboro estimated that only five percent of his trade was from black customers; yet sales fell by 20 percent in 1960, and profits by 50 percent. In many cases, when businesses were resistant to sit-ins, local Civil Rights groups announced boycotts of some or all businesses. In Nashville, where blacks represented 30 percent of downtown customers, a black boycott in support of the sit-ins was believed to be around 98 percent effective.
From Greensboro, the business press seemed fixated on the threat; hardly a week went by without coverage of the issue, often with a series of brief updates on events in various cities. Precise quantification of the impact is beyond reach, but the major headlines speak for themselves: “Negro Protests Plague Chains, No End in Sight;” “Retail Losses Cited in Negro Sitdowns, Spread is Feared;” “Segregation Issue Still Disturbing Retail Scene;” “Boycott Hurts in Nashville.” As one Washington source put it: “Merchants aren’t saying much about this, but they’re scared to death, because they are afraid they will lose business either way.”
Although many dismissive statements were issued both by national and local spokesmen—indeed there is no evidence that southern protests had detectable effects on national chain-store profits, even when supplemented by pickets in northern cities—their underlying apprehensiveness was not hard to detect. In one anonymous interview, the manager of a variety store “afflicted by the spreading sitdown controversy over segregated eating facilities” reported that sales fell between 20 and 30 percent during protests. The manager worried that the problem would hurt future expansion plans, because some will stay out “until this thing blows over—and the end doesn’t show the slightest inkling of being in sight.” More potent than current losses were fears for the future. According to New York Times interviews, the paramount concern voiced by urban merchants was “a fear that prolonged racial tensions might drive customers of both races into the suburban shopping centers never to return .º.º. Downtown stores in all [Southern cities] have felt the keen knife of competition from the suburbs.”
Thus, when the demonstrators showed their persistence by returning for new rounds of protest, business and civic leaders in many cities were ready to acquiesce, especially in the border states. The earliest major cities to announce plans to desegregate public accommodations were San Antonio and Galveston, Texas, and Baltimore Maryland, in March and April, 1960. In Dallas, lunch counters were desegregated in June 1960, and a committee of business and civic leaders coordinated full downtown integration as of July 26, 1961. In Nashville, an agreement to desegregate lunch counters was reached in May, 1960, after weeks of secret negotiations, providing the first success at a major southern city outside of Texas. In Richmond, Virginia, the two largest department stores desegregated their eating places in January, 1961, and a lengthy boycott ended in August of that year when agreement was reached with seven downtown stores. All told, lunch counters in over a hundred cities dropped race barriers within a year of the first sit-ins, and the number continued to rise over the next two years.