Non-Violent Defiance: 5 Boycotts that Changed America

Non-Violent Defiance: 5 Boycotts that Changed America

Donna Patricia Ward - July 17, 2017

Boycotts are a form of non-violet protest intended to do economic harm. They have a tendency to also bring attention to practices deemed discriminatory or damaging. Boycotts happen throughout the world, but Americans have perfected this mode of protest as an act of defiance. Named for an Irish land agent, Charles Boycott, who harshly evicted tenant farmers that were unable to by their annual rent due to discriminatory laws passed in England, Boycott has unwittingly given his name to a very successful act of disobedience. Historians have argued that boycotts were an essential component to defeating the British, obtaining civil rights, and streamlining foreign policy. Below are five shocking boycotts that changed America.

Non-Violent Defiance: 5 Boycotts that Changed America
North Carolina History Project

1. Edenton, North Carolina Tea Party 1774

European immigrants settled Edenton, North Carolina in the late seventeenth century. In 1722, the King’s appointed governor made Edenton his home, thus making the small town the capital of the Province of North Carolina until 1743. During those years, the town’s population, and importance as a seaport increased. Situated at the mouth of the Chowan River and the Albemarle Sound, Edenton is connected to the backcountry of Virginia and the shipping routes of the Atlantic Ocean.

Merchants shipped tea, wine, sugar, and many other goods into Edenton. Great Britain had passed laws that prohibited the sale of any goods in America that were not produced in England or shipped via British vessels. Any goods made in America such as muskets, knives, or furniture, had to be shipped to England. Selling those goods directly to a neighbor, for example, would be in direct defiance of the King. As such, Americans made goods, but they were not allowed to sell them without approval from British officials.

In the aftermath of the Seven Years War, known as the French-Indian War in America, the King and Parliament began passing tax proclamations. All British colonies, including America, were to pay coinage to pay down war debts and to fund new fort construction. When Great Britain won new frontier territory from France, old French fortifications had to be staffed and new forts built to ensure the proper protection of British colonists living along the frontier.

As taxes were levied on goods, American colonists attempted to air their grievances with British officials. When their numerous requests for an audience were denied or ignored, colonists began to boycott all British-made and British-shipped goods. This was an enormous act of defiance considering Americans were forbidden to sell the goods they made unless they were shipped form England.

Throughout the British Colonies, Patriots began boycotting goods. Shops operated by British merchants were targeted as shameful places to purchase British-shipped wine and fabric. People that shopped at these stores were later targeted as traitors to the patriot cause; some were even tarred and feathered. Women supportive of the anti-tax movement began spinning their own fabric and making homespun clothing instead of purchasing fabric imported by the British.

Anti-British fervor was rising in the small town of Edenton. Inspired by the defiance of the Sons of Liberty in Boston, fifty-one women met in the parlor of Penelope Baker on October 25,1774. The women signed a petition stating that they would never purchase tea or other British-imported goods “until such time that all acts which tend to enslave our Native country shall be repealed.” In January 1775, the British press printed the women’s petition along with their names. They were vilified with satirical cartoons that painted them as being neglectful of their children, lacking obedience, and as being puppets of men.

The Edenton Tea Party was the first known anti-British movement in the colonies organized solely by women. Each woman that signed the petition could have been tried for treason and hung as they were in direct defiance of the King. Throughout the colonies, the Edenton women became a symbol of American defiance and influenced the formation of many other anti-British organizations that ultimately contributed to the successful break from colonial rule.

Non-Violent Defiance: 5 Boycotts that Changed America
The Underground Railroad, painting by Charles T. Webber, 1893. Public Domain

2. Antebellum Quaker Boycotts

The Society of Friends, more commonly called Quakers, formed in the aftermath of the English Civil War (1642-1651). Quakers believed that it was their duty to have “holy conversation” and lead lives of piety, faith, and love. King Charles II gave a land grant to William Penn, who encouraged his fellow Quakers to leave England and Ireland and settle in the new British Colonies. These Quakers founded Philadelphia in 1681 where they used slave labor to clear the land, construct buildings, and build urban infrastructure.

A Quaker abolitionist movement began around 1730. As they emancipated their slaves, Quakers began advocating for complete abolition, which became a new tenant of Quaker society. As Philadelphia grew, Quakers began traveling south into the Carolina backcountry to establish new communities that continued to advocate peace, love, and abolition. Meanwhile, as eastern plantation and slave owners sought out new lands, they came in direct contact with the peace-loving Quakers. Many believed the Quakers cowards as they abstained from violence even though they had successfully negotiated trade relations with hostile native tribal leaders without relying upon violent attacks.

Upon American independence, Quakers remained committed to the peace and loving tenants of their religion. As abolitionists in New England held rallies and gave speeches that proclaimed the horrors of slavery in the South, Quakers became entrenched in their own fight for abolition. Largely ignored, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 required all citizens and government officials to assist with the recapturing of any escaped slave when his or her owner came looking. Theoretically, all an escaped slave had to do was cross into a free state where he or she could blend in with the free-black community. Reality was different and escaped slaves required help to make safe passage to a free state or Canada.

Levi Coffin, a prominent Quaker, led a boycott against any shop that sold or transported goods that used slave labor. In antebellum America, cotton was the most profitable crop because it was planted, maintained, harvested, and transported by people who received no wages for their labor. When the cotton arrived at northern textile mills, cheap immigrant labor was used to manufacture cloth and clothing, which was then transported to shops throughout the country. Quakers boycotted plantation-grown cotton, the goods it was manufactured into, and the shops that sold it. They also boycotted rice, sugar, and flour milled by slaves.

In addition to boycotting crops that used slave labor, Quakers became central figures in the Underground Railroad. After the success of the Mexican-American War, southern plantation owners began to press for a strict national fugitive slave law. With the passage of the Compromise of 1850, it became illegal for anyone to assist a runaway slave or to interfere with the return of a slave to its owner. Quakers did not recognize this law as it was against their belief of abolition, peace, love, and the right of anyone to have “holy conversation” with God.

Quakers established safe houses for enslaved men, women, and children who were undertaking the laborious and illegal trek north. In direct defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Quakers provided information for runaway slaves that would lead them to the next safe house. Most that participated in the Underground Railroad knew only of the next safe house instead of all of the safe houses. The secrecy implemented by the Quakers would assist them if they were found out by anyone seeking to find a runaway slave, of which there were many.

In the case of the Quakers, their boycott of crops and goods made with slave labor became a stepping-stone to establishing the Underground Railroad. For Levi Coffin and his wife Catherine, it is estimated that they alone assisted 2,000 escaped slaves to freedom. Perhaps the most famous person with ties to the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman who undoubtedly interacted with Quakers as she escorted escaped slaves to freedom.

Non-Violent Defiance: 5 Boycotts that Changed America
Rosa Parks being fingerprinted by Deputy Sheriff D.H.. Lackey after being arrested for boycotting public transportation, Montgomery, Alabama, February 1956. Public Domain

3. Montgomery Bus Boycott December 5, 1955-December 20, 1956

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, three amendments to the US Constitution were ratified between 1865 and 1870 making equality seem attainable. When Reconstruction ended and former Confederate states were readmitted to the Union, a new chapter in the fight for civil rights emerged. By the mid-twentieth century, Jim Crow laws implemented in the South stated that African Americans had to use accommodations marked “for colored only.” In northern states there were no laws forcing segregation. Instead, people used terror and intimidation to make sure that whites and blacks did not publically mix. Segregation was entrenched in American life regardless of laws on the books.

National City Lines operated the Montgomery Bus Line in Montgomery, Alabama. Roughly 75% of the city’s ridership was African American. Whites were given the first ten rows of seats on the bus, and blacks the back 10 rows. If there were more whites on the bus than blacks, they were required by law to give up their seat and stand. African Americans were often forced to pay their fare and then walk outside the bus and board at the back door. During peak times, bus drivers had no problem leaving before African Americans had time to board. Tired of their rights being ignored, a collection of men and women enacted a plan to challenge the segregation of Montgomery’s public transportation. Their protest began on December 1, 1955.

Rosa Parks was a seamstress and life-long civil rights activist. She was the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At the end of the day, Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person, which resulted in her arrest. Local activists printed and circulated a flyer through the black community of Montgomery proclaiming that, “Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate.”

The Montgomery Bus Boycott began on December 5, 1955. Major civil rights advocates participated including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. Bus lines throughout the country became boycott targets, adversely impacting their economic viability. When the United States Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling in a civil case that proclaimed Alabama’s racial segregation laws on buses were unconstitutional, the City of Montgomery drafted a new ordinance that proclaimed blacks could sit anywhere they wanted to on buses. After 381 days, the boycott ended on December 20, 1956.

The victory of the civil rights movement was met with violent backlash. Whites attacked black riders as they left the bus, sometimes even firing shots into the buses. Whites who had supported the boycott had their homes shot at and black churches were set on fire. With violence erupting throughout the city, Montgomery officials suspended all bus service for several weeks until the violence subsided. When the bus service was restored and blacks could sit anywhere, Montgomery, and many other cities, remained segregated.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott made Rosa Parks a heroine of the civil rights movement as a defiant black woman seeking her legal rights under the law. Newspapers throughout the country and the world published images of the violence that followed the boycott. These images illustrated the horrors that accompanied daily life for African Americans as they worked toward equality. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the beginning of more vocal activism that was greeted with violence for the next decade.

Non-Violent Defiance: 5 Boycotts that Changed America
Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil, the Greensboro Four, February 1, 1960. Public Domain

4. Woolworth’s Sit-In, February 1-July 25, 1960

By the mid-20th century, Greensboro, North Carolina was home to numerous textile mills. Northern industrialists had long been moving their massive mill operations south to exploit cheap labor and close proximity to cotton and tobacco fields. When the railroad arrived, more mills opened and the city’s population increased rapidly. Residents in Greensboro took pride in their “gate city” and its five colleges. Two of those colleges were historically black colleges: Bennett College for Women and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCA&T).

Race relations in Greensboro, and other parts of the country, remained strained after the 1954 Brown decision. State and local boards remained defiant at desegregating public schools and many people were still against race mixing. African Americans were permitted to shop and spend their money in most places; however, they were not permitted to eat in the same places as whites. Activists seeking to shed light on the racial inequalities began using a new method of non-violent protest, the sit-in.

As early as 1939, sit-ins were used as a way to grab media attention to the plight of blacks in the United States. A black lawyer, Samuel Wilbert Tucker, organized a sit-in in the hopes of forcing a public library in Alexandria, Virginia to change its whites only policy. In 1942, 1949, 1954, and 1959, the Congress of Racial Equality organized sit-ins in Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Wichita that successfully forced local banks to end their segregation polices. For four men in Greensboro, the successes of such non-violent sit-ins offered hope for change.

Woolworth was a national chain of drug stores that had a lunch counter. Supported by the corporate office, local store managers were permitted to set store policies based upon local customs. At the store in Greensboro, this meant that blacks could shop at the store but they could not eat at the lunch counter. For four students from NCA&T it was time to bring attention to the practices of the store. During the late afternoon on February 1, 1960, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, Jr., and David Richmond purchased items at Woolworth, sat at the lunch counter, and asked for a cup of coffee. When they were refused service they remained in their seats until forced to leave at closing time.

On the morning of the 2nd, twenty black students from NCA&T and Bennett College arrived at the Woolworth counter. Each sat on a stool and requested service to which they were denied. Undaunted, the stools remained occupied by black protesters. On the third day, 60 people crammed the lunch counter. Woolworth issued a statement that they would maintain the “local custom” of a segregated lunch counter in their store. On the fourth day, 300 protesters arrived at the lunch counter, hindering the operations of the store. Organizers expanded the sit-in movement to the Kress drug store on the next block.

Within a week the sit-in movement had spread to other cities such as Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham, and Winston-Salem to name a few. Soon sit-ins were organized in Richmond and Nashville. Finally, after months of protest and loss of revenue, the store manager asked three black employees to change out of their work uniforms and sit at the lunch counter. With the serving of the three black employees on July 25, 1960, the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro was officially desegregated.

Today the lunch counter and the former Woolworth building in downtown Greensboro is the site of the International Civil Rights Museum that is devoted to the stories and research of equality struggles throughout the world. The Greensboro Four are honored with a statue on the campus of NCA&T.

Non-Violent Defiance: 5 Boycotts that Changed America
A political cartoon depicting the 1980 Moscow Olympic Boycott. Google Images

5. 1980 Summer Olympics

The modern Olympic games occur every four years. Considered the pinnacle of competition, the games provide nationalist pride in an atmosphere of friendly sport contests. Viewed as a time to put political allegiances aside, the Olympic games are not without controversy. The 1938 Berlin games were used by Adolph Hitler to promote his ideas of racial superiority and anti-Semitism. At the 1972 Munich games, eleven athletes from the Israeli team were taken hostage and killed by a Palestinian terror group. In 1980, the games became a victim of Cold War foreign policy.

In 1967, the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) split into two competing factions. On July 17, 1973, the former Prime Minister, Mohammad Daoud Khan led a military coup which ousted the royal family. Daoud received support from many citizens in Afghanistan who were happy to see the end of the monarchy and the promise of new economic opportunities. As the Daoud-led government became more repressive, opposition from the PDPA increased. The Afghan army overthrew Daoud on April 27, 1978, and Nur Muhammad Taraki became Prime Minister of the new Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

Initially the new Taraki government was supported by the Soviet Union. Since 1955 the Soviet Union had been sending economic and military assistance to Afghanistan to protect Soviet interests. The two countries signed a treaty of friendship on December 5, 1978. After India demonstrated its nuclear capabilities, Afghan leaders began to support Pakistani rebels. This created a political firestorm for Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. Seeking to negotiation some sort of resolve to the heighten tensions, the United States sent its US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs, to participate in diplomatic talks. While in Afghanistan, Dubs was kidnapped by militants, caught in the crossfire between pro-government and militant forces, and killed.

As the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union deteriorated, both nations began supporting opposite factions in Pakistan. Tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan increased, egged on by both the Soviet Union and the United States. Eventually, at the request of the Afghan government, Soviet forces entered the country to support a coup. On December 27, 1979, roughly 700 Soviet troops dressed in Afghan army uniforms took over the military and government facilities in Kabul, a task completed by the early morning hours of December 28, 1979.

Almost immediately, nations declared the “invasion” a hostile act and demanded for the “immediate, urgent and unconditional withdraw of Soviet troops” from Afghanistan. Soviet troops were given thirty days to withdraw and when they refused, nations began advocating for the boycotting of the 1980 Olympics to be held that summer in Moscow. Fearful that international politic would trump the idea of friendly competition, the International Olympic Committed tried to mend the situation. As President Jimmy Carter and allies of the United States became loud advocates for boycotting the games, the IOC sent boxer Muhammad Ali on an international tour to plead with nations to not boycott the athletic competition due to political issues.

In the months leading up to the games, news reports focused on the stance of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and if the United States would follow through on its threat of boycott. In the end, 66 countries boycotted the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow. While some boycotted for reasons unrelated to the Afghan-Soviet War, the United States and its allies refused to send their athletes. In retaliation, the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The Afghan-Soviet war officially ended in February 1989. On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union of Socialist Republic officially dissolved, ending the Cold War.