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From the Land of Emmett Till: My Favorite Mississippi Christmas Story — Boycotts Work!

I appreciate this story that comes out of Mississippi, from the modern civil rights movement, and tell it often —  especially this time of the year.

As 1961 came to a close, some white folks in the Mississippi Delta were dreaming of a White Christmas when they decided to keep their black customers away from the city of Clarksdale’s annual parade.

Now this might sound mean-spirited, but the black people had already learned of their parade position — at the end of the line, after all of the white floats and bands passed by.

Once they heard where their parade position was to be, Coahoma County’s NAACP chapter led by civil rights activist Aaron Henry sponsored a major boycott over the Christmas shopping season of 1961. Here is the story as it appeared in a recent online magazine interview:

“Clarksdale’s downtown stores were all heavily dependent on black trade, giving the boycott both immediate and lasting effects,” civil rights author, Susan Klopfer said.

Medgar Evers, head of the state NAACP, and Henry had met that summer with with President John F. Kennedy during the NAACP convention in Philadelphia, talking with Kennedy and others over the severity of their problems.

Then two months later, shortly after their meeting, Clarksdale’s mayor decided there would be “no Negro participation” in the annual Christmas parade, and his decision would result in the first major confrontation in Clarksdale since 1955, according to Klopfer.

“Henry and others were stunned and affronted by the mayor’s edict. It was tradition for the black band to play at the end of the parade, followed by floats from their community. There seemed to be no reason for this decision, except that the mayor apparently resented the progress African Americans were making all over the state.”

Henry and Evers called for a boycott of downtown stores with a slogan stating if they couldn’t parade downtown, they wouldn’t trade downtown.

Handbills were printed and a newsletter sent out asking for blacks to join in the boycott; merchants felt pressure from the start.

“The white community leaders would not come to terms with the black community and the boycott dragged on,” Klopfer said.

Aaron Henry “voiced the black community’s view” when he said it could go on forever unless there were real changes in hiring practices.

When the county’s attorney Thomas H. (Babe) Pearson threatened to jail Henry if he didn’t use his influence to call off the boycott, Henry would not budge, so Pearson called out for Clarksdale Police Chief Ben Collins to come out from the side room of his office, and told him to “take this nigger to jail.”

The arrest was illegal, Klopfer states, since no warrant was issued, “but Henry knew better not to argue with an armed policeman. He could have been killed for such dissent.”

Years later, “Henry admitted he didn’t mind going to jail at the time, since he knew it would result in an intensification of the boycott–and it did.”

Seven more Clarksdale civil rights leaders were brought in and all were locked up, later charged with restraint of trade and released. The boycott reached its peak about three years later, following passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and merchants felt the economic pinch throughout the event as they missed one-half of their customers, Klopfer said.

Yet even while Henry and others were being arrested, another group — all white — tried launching a boycott of their own when the Mississippi State Legislature passed a resolution that no loyal Mississippian should shop in Memphis, Tennessee, just across the state line, and quite close to Clarksdale, Klopfer said.

“Tougaloo College professor John Salter, a dedicated civil rights activist, wrote about the Clarksdale boycott, noting that while public accommodations and other facilities in Memphis were quietly desegregating, the Mississippi legislature further distinguished itself, ‘…by publicly investigating conditions at the University Hospital in Jackson, where white and black children were leaving their segregated wards and playing together in the corridors’.”

Few people today have read about the Clarkdale boycott, Klopfer admits.

But others have learned in their history books — or were alive at the time — when six years earlier, African-Americans in Alabama launched a boycott of the bus system in Montgomery after local civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white rider.

“Parks 1955 decision came soon after the trial freeing the murderers of Emmett Till, an African American 14-year-old Illinois school boy who was killed in the Mississippi Delta for allegedly whistling at white women,” Klopfer said.

Given that African-Americans constituted a large part of the bus ridership, history books show the boycott hurt Montgomery’s revenue base.

“People found alternative ways to get to work and school, and the boycott drew national attention. Even some northerners supported the boycott and gave donations.”

Both Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, who would remain at the forefront of the struggle through the 1960s, “emerged at this time.”

The Montgomery boycott ended in 1956 when the Supreme Court declared that the segregated transit system was unconstitutional.

“From this history and their own, Hispanics know that boycotts have proven effective in their quest for labor justice and union rights.” Klopfer said.

In 1965, the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, led by Cesar Chavez, launched a national boycott against grapes.

“The five-year boycott, or la huelga, placed enormous pressure on California grape growers to recognize the union and it drew national attention to the plight of unorganized immigrant workers in low-paying and dangerous jobs,” Klopfer said.

Meanwhile, boycotts still carry a threat in the Delta, according to the civil rights author.

“Citizens in the small town of Cleveland, near the site where Emmett Till was killed in 1955, threatened an Easter boycott just last month over an issue involving school segregation. One thousand school children marched from their building to administrative offices.”

Klopfer says the school board listened — “at least for this particular demand” — and gave in, after board members were told of an impending boycott.

“Boycotts carry weight and politicians should be taking seriously the response to Arizona’s new law, if they value lessons learned from history.”

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Susan Klopfer is the author of three civil rights books, including “Who Killed Emmett Till?” “The Emmett Till Book” and “Where Rebels Roost; Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited.” She is an award-winning journalist and has been an acquisitions and development editor for Prentice Hall. She is the author of a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate selection and is a public speaker, freelance writer and active blogger.