Anatomy of a Boycott
The words of a true leader, philosopher and servant echo today in the wake of a shapeless
By Eduardo Barraza
Phoenix, Arizona -  “Along with the march as a weapon for change in our nonviolent arsenal must
be listed the boycott. Basic to the philosophy of nonviolence is the refusal to cooperate with evil.
There is nothing quite so effective as the refusal to cooperate economically with the forces and
institutions that perpetuate evil in our communities.”

With powerful eloquence, the epitome of the civil rights movement of the fifties and sixties, Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr., described the boycott in its most basic and elemental function. In his
elucidation, King refers to the boycott in terms of effectiveness, mainly because of its nonviolent
nature, but also as a component of a larger strategy that includes not only the march, but also
organization. He knew, and stated it, that the march by itself “is not a ‘one shot’ to victory-
producing method. One march is seldom successful…it can serve as a part of a program to
dramatize an evil…”

In King’s hands, the three elements of the movement worked not only as a cluster of social change,
but they effectively produced the expected results. Predictably, those results did not come easy nor
were achieved in a short period of time. He understood that the victory of a struggle was a
progressive chain of reaction that added links of success over a period of time. As a social
movement, the search for civil rights was a battle by battle non-violent conflict that had both
strategy and direction.

The civil rights leader’s words and understanding of what it took to shake the social status quo,
greatly contrasts with today’s efforts of Latino organizers to produce social change, within the
framework of the immigrants’ movement. Divided among themselves, aspiring leaders have
repeatedly quoted and referred to King’s movement as a point of comparison to what they are
trying to achieve. Undoubtedly, they know the tools –marches, boycotts, and organizing– and have
utilized them in a more or less effective way. However, the obvious results make evident that
effective tools don’t necessarily make successful craftsmen.

Before we briefly analyze the fact that good tools only work in skillful hands, we need to stress the
value and efficiency that King acknowledged marches, boycotts, and organization have. The Baptist
minister first recognized, that the usefulness of marches reside in mobilizing the forces of good will,
and in generating pressure and power for change. Nevertheless, and based on his experience,
King also expressed the need that marches “must continue over a period of thirty to forty-five days
to produce any meaningful results.” In addition to the length of time, King included as an
indispensable ingredient, the size of a march. He expressed that “they must also be of a significant
size to produce some inconvenience to the forces in power or they go unnoticed…” King believed
that marches “must demand the attention of the press, for it is the press which interprets the
issues to the community at large and thereby sets in motion the machinery for change.”

Second, the civil rights leader explained that in order to be effective, a boycott was simply refusing
to purchase products from companies which did not hire Blacks in meaningful numbers and in all job
categories. For King, a true boycott was –listen up, aspiring leaders– “a disciplined program of
selective buying.” He saw this practice as “the peak of power…it cuts the profit margin of a
business in order to bring about a more just distribution of jobs and opportunities for…earners and
consumers.” Boycotts, in King’s opinion, must “be sustained over a period of several weeks and
months to assure results.”

King wraps it up by adding to this social equation of action: “Our most powerful nonviolent weapon
is, as would be expected, also our most demanding, that is organization. To produce change,
people must be organized to work together in units of power.” Thus, King encompassed all three
elements, almost as one, to strategically deal with the social problems of his times.

Martin Luther King Jr., successfully utilized these nonviolent weapons because he had three basic
characteristics as a leader. He was above all a product of segregation, discrimination, and injustice.
Even though he grew up in a middle class family, he suffered and saw these social evils first hand.
He prepared himself to serve within the tradition of the spiritual struggle which began with Black
slaves, who foresaw in their plight the arrival of a prophet and deliverer. In this sense, King was
not only a third generation of Christian ministers, but was also the finished product of years and
years of struggle, the most articulated, and the consummated messenger of a new era in the
United States. Consequently, the tools of marches, boycotts, and organization were suited for his
skillful abilities: great tools; competent servant.

The slain leader was above and beyond anything else a philosopher of the movement. He shaped it
with intense oratory, a consistent message, and with an educational framework. He insisted that
marches and boycotts were a matter of “continuous education of the community in order that
support can be maintained. People will work together and sacrifice if they understand clearly why
and how this sacrifice will bring about change.”

So called leaders and organizers of what has become known as the immigrants’ movement, have
failed to philosophically unite, because they have failed to essentially understand each other. It is
no wonder the people are going in so many different directions, expressing opinions from one
extreme to the other, and complicating a process that lacks a serious course, a consensus of ideas,
and a structure to give it form. If King’s methods and tactics are no longer effective, Latino
organizers need to stop referring to them; if they are, why are they not utilizing them correctly?

In the wake of such a powerful emerging force –the immigrants– the key players of a rising social
movement must undress themselves of their clothing of special interests and hidden agendas. To
be effective, they need to show their true colors, and to lay their agendas on the table. They
should seek common ground and an agreeable philosophy. Even if they do this, they will need to
accept that the true calling of a leader is born long before the idea goes through their minds. A
genuine leader is not a position of power, but a responsibility to serve.
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Learn more about Dr. King's leadership
Related Article: Walking Down on Auburn Avenue
Related Article: MLK, Jr. A doer, not a dreamer
SELECTIVE BUYING  The civil rights
leader explained that in order to be
effective, a boycott was simply refusing
to purchase products from companies
which did not hire Blacks in meaningful
numbers and in all job categories. For
King, a true boycott was “a disciplined
program of selective buying.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. Economic boycotts
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