Courtesy of Paul Richards, Estuary Press

Black Christmas in American Department Stores

by Traci Parker

In November 2017, as retailers readied for the Christmas shopping season, draping Christmas trees with lavish decorations and twinkling lights and hanging festive, green wreaths and holiday sale signs to the sound of Bing Crosby warmly crooning “White Christmas,”[1] the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM), Los Angeles chapter, tweeted: “We’re dreaming of a #BlackXmas.” For the second year, the movement leveraged black buying power—now over one trillion dollars—and the Christmas holiday to challenge white capitalism and supremacy, the principal causes of racial and economic inequalities and state-sanctioned violence against black people. African Americans were urged to withhold their dollars from “white corporations” and instead “donate to Black-led organizations that are building new, liberatory structures in our communities…in the names of your loved ones as their [holiday] gifts.” If shoppers wanted to partake in the holiday shopping ritual, they were encouraged to purchase from black-owned retailers.[2]

#BlackXmas was poised to make a dramatic and powerful impact given the retail industry’s tenuous financial situation and the fervor of political resistance to President Donald Trump and his administration’s embrace and promotion of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Department stores, in particular, have been on a downward trajectory; their decline, along with other retailers, have caused many to conclude that the retail industry is on the verge of collapse. (In 2017, before the start of the holiday shopping season, Macy’s closed nearly seventy stores, J.C. Penney closed 138 locations, and more than 350 Sears and Kmart stores had shuttered). Despite all of this, however, #BlackXmas did not have the far-reaching impact that its organizers wished for. Department stores made over $35 million in sales in November and December alone; approximately 25 percent of their annual sales.[3] Retail holiday sales as a whole increased 4.9 percent over last year, giving American retailers their most profitable holiday shopping season in years.[4] All of this is striking for two particular reasons. First, #BlackXmas follows a long tradition of black economic protests, where African Americans have leveraged their purchasing power to demand and realize first-citizenship, a status dependent on equal treatment as consumers as well as workers. Second, the BLM’s movement spotlights the changing dimensions—or more accurately, the fragility—of the department store industry and the current realities of civil rights activism during the Christmas shopping season when an overwhelming number of shoppers purchase goods online from the convenience of their home or office.

By and large, little about #BlackXmas is new. In the twentieth century, as Americans’ realization of democracy became intricately tied to their identity as consumers, African Americans leveraged their collective labor and purchasing power to dismantle racially discriminatory hiring and customer service practices in retail establishments. Then, however, department stores reigned as the nation’s leading retailers and were frequent targets of black protest; in particular the Christmas shopping season was African Americans’ preferred occasion to protest.

Since their inception in the late nineteenth century, department stores, dependent on mass consumption, welcomed all visitors, although they especially sought to attract members of the white middle and upper classes. Stores operated under the principle of free entry and browsing— the right to look around the store without the obligation to buy. Not everyone, however, could look around and access the store equally. Even as the democracy of the department store was open to the broad participation of whites, it conformed to and endorsed notions of racial order, fearing that any noticeable presence of African Americans or any perception of racial equality would upset their white customers. But rather than brand themselves as “white-only” and overtly deny blacks access like other public accommodations and workplaces of this era, many stores did receive blacks under the principle of free entry and browsing—but then constrained their movement and participation within this space. They were hired as maintenance and stockroom workers, elevator operators, porters, and maids—all invisible from the selling floor—but barred from white-collar positions in sales, clerical, and management. Black customers were welcome to spend their money on material goods in many stores but were frequently ignored and underserved. They were refused service at eateries and beauty shops, prohibited from trying on and returning clothes, and denied credit. Some stores, especially those in southern cities, forbade black patronage entirely or often on a whim, while others confined them to bargain basements.

If the department store’s ambiguous and contradictory racial order made these retail institutions vulnerable to black protest, the extravagance and grandness that they projected and used to entice the masses during the Christmastime made department stores ideal—and even more vulnerable—to civil rights agitation. Since the early twentieth century, Christmas in department stores was a spectacle, a fairytale, and a carnival of sorts that encouraged shoppers to desire, fantasize, and, of course, buy a ‘Merry Christmas.’ At Wanamaker’s department store in 1916, for example, “from November 9 to Christmas Eve, every day at ten-thirty in the morning, the lights were turned off in [its] toy department and thousands of children watched a parade, heralded by trumpets and drums and led by a uniformed brass band of Wanamaker employees.” Characters from children books would follow and then “Santa Claus appeared, seated on a royal palanquin [a kind of raised platform] and carried regally by four Eskimos to his Royal Red Theater in Santa Town.”[5] More than just the fantasy that department stores created at Christmas, holiday consumer spending fueled—and continues to do so—retail growth and the American economy. The Christmas shopping season lasts roughly four to five weeks, reaching from Thanksgiving Day through the New Year. This is no accident. In 1939 retail merchants convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving Day up one week to allow shoppers more time to shop, stimulate the American economy as a whole, and fatten retailers’ wallets. Today, holiday shopping account for approximately 20 to 30 percent of retailers’ annual sales, according to the National Retail Federation. The Christmas shopping season is often a “make or break time” for many retailers, with holiday profits determining the future direction of businesses, as a result.

It is not surprising then that black Christmas movements were born in the twentieth century. For example, “at the Christmas season during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr. built on the ascetic tradition of previous American boycotts by calling on protesters to refuse to shop at downtown stores and to save their Christmas-shopping money or give it to charity or to the Montgomery Improvement Association.”[6] In December 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) coordinated a nationwide Christmas boycott, asking black consumers to withhold their dollars from stores that maintained segregated eating facilities and restrooms. In early December 1962 and for several months thereafter, the Jackson, Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, under the leadership of Medgar Evers, boycotted local stores “as part of a broad demand for [the] desegregation of the city.”[7]

Notably, in late 1963, after the tragic deaths of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, President John F. Kennedy, and four young girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the Actors and Writers for Justice, an ad hoc organization spearheaded by author James Baldwin, declared that Christmas that year would a “Black Christmas.” Black Christmas was conceived to be a nationwide boycott in memory of those lost in the civil rights movement and an indictment of racial discrimination, segregation, and violence. The boycott, however, “received a lukewarm response,” with only one of the six major civil rights organizations—the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)—backing this movement.[8] Chuck Stone, a journalist and the first black executive at Carson Pirie Scott department store in Chicago, wrote a “Christmas boycott could hurt the innocent with the guilty” and suggested that if African Americans “want[ed] to do something truly Christlike at Christmas, buy all the presents you want—from those businesses and companies which really want your dollar—and at the same time, send a Christmas card to the four parents in Birmingham.”[9] Ultimately, a national Christmas boycott never came to fruition; but the threat of one compelled many businesses to “befriend, rather than antagonize black shoppers” and even support the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.[10]

In Birmingham, though, thousands pledged to withhold their patronage at retail establishments to commemorate the lives lost in the movement, dismantle racial barriers in consumption and employment, and win first-class citizenship. Department stores were hit particularly hard. At Loveman’s Department Store, which just a few months earlier had desegregated its lunch counter in response to civil rights agitation (and was later bombed because of this move), local blacks withheld their dollars and picketed the storefront, demanding that the retailer adopt merit hiring. (The demand for fair employment was a recurring and achievable one in Christmas protests, especially given that most, if not all, retailers hired extra staff to weather the busy holiday shopping season). Birmingham’s black Christmas boycott had two major effects: first, it “brought a new spirit of unity to the community…[fostering] a new sense of determination [among blacks] to continue [their activism] until complete respect and human dignity come”; and second, it slowed business to the extent that several firms went of business and the city was forced to cancel its annual Christmas parade.[11]

Approximately 150 miles north in Atlanta a similar movement was transpiring. Operation Breadbasket, the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights (COAHR), and SNCC, along with students from local black colleges, universities, and high schools, united in a Christmas boycott of Rich’s Department Store because of the retailer’s refusal to hire African Americans sales workers. Despite profiting enormously from black patronage, Rich’s allegedly employed six black salespeople out of 740 total employees. Activists demanded that the retailer hire forty one black saleswomen by Christmas and up to one hundred others by June 1, 1964. The boycott was led by Reverend Ralph Abernathy of Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Larry Fox of the Atlanta University COAHR. The movement kicked off with 400 high school and college students marching to the store, while carrying picket signs, chanting “Don’t Buy at Rich’s,” “We Want Jobs,” and “Freedom Now” and singing “We Shall Overcome.” This Christmas movement continued into the next year until Rich’s finally agreed to fully integrate its salesforce.

The use of Christmas boycotts in department stores, however, was not limited to the Civil Rights Movement. The Black Power and feminist movements also embraced this tactic. In 1967, the Youth Council in Milwaukee launched a “Black Christmas” campaign to pressure local business leaders to get more involved in opening public housing to African Americans. Activists “paraded through downtown shopping districts and into some major department stores,” singing “I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas” and “Freedom Bells.”[12] Milwaukee eventually passed a city-wide, open-housing ordinance until late April 1968; but only after the federal government passed its own open housing law. In 1970 activist and attorney Florynce “Flo” Kennedy launched a similar endeavor to protest the unjust prosecution of Black Panther Party members. She “organized picket lines in front of New York’s popular department stores and in front of major media outlets with a motley crew of support from Florence Rice, who was a black feminist, Media Workshop member, and Harlem consumer advocate; black nationalist Queen Mother Moore; and the Whites Against Racism organization. Each Saturday leading up to Christmas, dozens of men and women marched in front of S. Klein, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Gimbels department stores and the office of the New York Times.”[13]

Throughout the twentieth century, protests against racial discrimination and segregation in department stores occurred all-year round. Civil rights activism in the department store industry—whether in November and December or earlier in the year—promised not only racial integration in the consumer sphere both on behalf of black workers and consumers but also the possible realization of middle-class citizenship. Christmas time, however, was one of the two showiest, busiest, and profitable times of the year (the other being Easter) for retailers and thus an effective season for making protests visible and elevating the voices and concerns of African American workers and consumers. Often, Christmas protests marked the explosion of black frustration, after having spent the year, and even years, trying to persuade and negotiate the racial desegregation of work and consumption in department stores only to find that retailers refused to do so entirely or adopted tokenism, instead of integration.

In the late twentieth century, however, Kmart and Wal-Mart displaced department stores as the nation’s top retailers, while few department stores resembled their former selves. Today, Amazon is quickly expanding and may one day displace Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. All of this marks a significant shift in American consumption. Once centered in large, full-service department stores, consumption now often takes place in discount and big box stores and on the internet, where the onus is on the customer to find, retrieve, and even sometimes check out their desired—and sharply discounted—purchases. In these ways, consumption has become less about service and more about the purchase of goods that have the power of marking one’s class and status.

It makes sense, then, that the decline of department stores and success of online retailers has made protesting brick and mortar stores increasingly difficult. Nonetheless, contemporary protesters can still learn a lot from the hard-headed analysis that their historical predecessors deployed. After all, mid-century protesters conducted research on black buying power at retail institutions and understood that—and specifically how—retailers were vulnerable to black boycotts. They also understood the strength of unity, as these boycotts often leveraged the powers of African American workers and consumers. The strategies and tactics of previous movements, thus, still need to be taken into account when launching any consumer boycott that calls for the advancement of racial and economic equality.

Author

TRACI PARKER is an assistant professor in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her book titled Department Stores and the Black Freedom Struggle will be published in 2019.

Notes

[1] In the 1942 film, Holiday Inn, Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas,” a song written and composed by Irving Berlin. Although “White Christmas” was initially overshadowed by another song from the film, “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” the Christmas song quickly became a bestseller. Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” has sold over 50 million copies and remains one of the most iconic holiday songs in the U.S.

[2] Melina Abdullah, “Building #BlackXmas: Resisting White Capitalism in the Wake of Donald Trump,” Los Angeles Sentinel, Dec. 23, 2016, https://lasentinel.net/building-blackxmas-resisting-white-capitalism-in-the-wake-of-donald-trump.html.

[3] U.S. Census Bureau, Advance Monthly Retail Trade Survey, Jan. 12, 2018.

[4] Dennis Green, “The holidays were ‘a big win’ for struggling retailers as sales soared,” Business Insider, Dec. 26, 2017, https://www.businessinsider.in/The-holidays-were-a-big-win-for-struggling-retailers-as-sales-soared/articleshow/62256549.cms.

[5] William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, (1994): 89.

[6] Ted Ownby, American Dreams in Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty, and Culture, 1830-1998 (1999): 152.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Robert E. Weems, Jr., Desegregating the Dollar: African American Consumerism in the Twentieth Century (1998): 68.

[9] Chuck Stone, “A Stone’s Throw: Christmas Boycott Could Hurt the Innocent with the Guilty,” Chicago Defender, Sept. 30, 1963, p. A3.

[10] Weems, Desegregating the Dollar, 68.

[11] “‘Black Xmas’ Brings New Unity,” Jet Magazine, Jan. 16, 1964.

[12] Patrick D. Jones, The Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee (2010): 204.

[13] Sherie Randolph, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy: The Life of a Black Feminist Radical (2015): 193-94.