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Black Workers and Consumers in the Long Civil Rights Movement

As Amazon expanded from an online retail corporation into a transnational logistics operation with retail, content/entertainment, shipping, data and web services, and crowdsourced labor, it forced shopping malls to realign their business model. Large department stores, which had disappeared from urban downtowns by the 1990s, now disappear from many malls. Even stand-alone discount retailers like Walmart and Kmart have had to change practices. It is clear retail consumption remains a site of contest for consumers and workers seeking equitable access to resources and fair treatment.

In Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement: Workers, Consumers, and Civil Rights from the 1930s to the 1980s, Traci Parker offers a historical link between the current struggles and the Civil Rights Movement of the twentieth century. Parker’s central argument emphasizes the mutually reinforcing dynamic between Black people as workers and consumers and highlights the importance of the department store movement for civil rights activism and notions of Black liberation. These massive stores were fundamental because as “places of both employment and consumption, department stores promoted a racialized democracy even as they inadvertently exposed the blatant contradictions of a Jim Crow society espousing democratic ideals” (4).

The book contributes to the long Civil Rights Movement approach, with its challenge to mainstream history that tends to celebrate events like the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, 1955–1956 Montgomery bus boycott, 1963 March on Washington, and 1965 Selma marches with little or no attention to decades of layered activism beyond public schools, public transportation, and voting rights. Parker also questions a traditional labor historiography that claims the labor-oriented phase of the Black freedom movement peaked during the New Deal and World War II but was lost in the anti-communist, anti-union Cold War years. She argues African Americans remained committed to labor and economic rights.

Parker states Black consumers were central to the advancement of that economic equality. While the ability to unionize did narrow due to postwar federal policy and anti-union management tactics, the power of Black consumers increased. Civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) leveraged labor and consumption to push for economic equity and full citizenship. Black workers also continued to use unions, which cooperated on and deployed consumer boycotts. When civil rights history expands beyond the South and integration, readers see that Black economic power remained a priority for the freedom struggle and recognize the wider ties to department store activism in the North and Midwest.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives