The Ballot or the Boycott: Resistance 2017, 2018 and 1863
Imagine Black men in uniforms, assembled around an American flag, surrounded by a jubilant crowd, and possessed by a spirit of resistance. Without apology, and at great risk, these African American men took on a system of white supremacy that both valued Black bodies and devalued Black lives — with brutal economic efficiency. That year was not 2017 but 1863; the men were not Black NFL players taking a knee but Black soldiers and former slaves taking a stand for the literal battles of the year ahead. As we enter 2018, the lessons could not be more relevant.
On January 1st, 155 years ago, these Black men stood amidst thousands of African American women, Union soldiers and northern ministers gathered on Port Royal Island in the South Carolina low country. They gathered before an American flag to listen to a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. According to free Black teacher and eyewitness, Charlotte L. Forten Grimke, after the proclamation was read and flag displayed, those assembled spontaneously and tearfully sang, “My Country Tis of Thee.”
The resistance of former slaves was a matter of emancipation and reunification of black families as well as reunification of a divided America. Like 2017, African American resisters were neither regarded as patriots nor citizens by their former slave holders. Indeed, they were regarded as treasonous to the slaveholding system that provided a skeletal existence for slaves and corpulent living for slave owners. Risking life and literally liberty, these resisters were in fact American patriots.
Standing on the uncertain threshold of 2018 and looking back over 2017 as a year of resistance, the necessity of patriotic protest could not be more obvious –from counter-protesters standing against neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, the global Women’s Marches, Science March, Tax March, Climate March, St. Louis Anthony Lamar Smith shooting protests, to the NFL protests. The protesters have had their patriotism and physical safety put into question. President Trump called Colin Kaepernick and black NFL players protesting police brutality “Sons of Bitches” while Attorney General Jeff Sessions caricaturized those protesting against police misconduct as a “Black Identity Extremist” movement.
If 2017 was a year of resistance to a wide-range of Trump policies, it began with one longstanding issue — voter suppression. The year began with a January 3rd sit-in against the nomination of then Senator Jeff Sessions to become U.S. Attorney General. Members of the Alabama NAACP, staff and I occupied Sessions’ Mobile, Alabama office for eight hours. Thereafter, we were arrested, booked, finger printed and jailed. The NAACP’s opposition to Sessions was due to his odious support for voter suppression over years. Since the weakening of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) through the Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court decision, there has been a Machiavellian frenzy of voter suppression by state legislatures. Journalist Ari Berman determined that the number of minority votes suppressed was President Trump’s margin of victory in Wisconsin.
Despite 11 NAACP legal victories against voter suppression and a 1002-mile Selma to DC march for the right to vote during my NAACP tenure, voter suppression continues. President Trump and the so-called Voter Integrity Commission are perpetuating the myth of voter fraud while aiding and abetting voter suppression.
What now? How will we oppose this determined assault on the vote? We should take a lesson from those same patriotic resisters of the South Carolina low country. Within a few years of the abolition of slavery, these former slaves were paid near starvation wages. To make what was unbearable worse, the Black laborers on rice plantations were paid not in wages but illegal script or IOUs. In the summer of 1876, Black laborers went on strike and refused to harvest rice. The strikers were met with violence, planter opposition and political resistance. The strikes were resolved when plantation owners agreed to pay strikers in cash. The rice strikes by no means introduced fair wages or treatment. The strikes were, however, a powerful demonstration of economic leverage — nearly 80 years before the Montgomery Boycott.
During 2017, federal courts have found that North Carolina and Texas serially violated the VRA by suppressing African American voting. 2018 is the year for “preemptive boycotts” and economic leverage. For example, if a company such as Amazon announces an intention to locate a major facility within a state determined by a court to have engaged in voter suppression, it should be subject to a consumer boycott. Every major social justice organization should announce their intention to call on their members and supporters to boycott any large company that locates in such a state. The results would be twofold: First, the announcement of an intention to boycott encourages states to either settle once sued under the VRA or refrain from violating it in the first place. Second, preemptive boycotts incentivize the business community to influence state legislatures to protect voting rights. In 2018, our demand must be the ballot or the boycott.