Under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) attracted criticism from other civil rights groups, notably the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, for its fleeting commitment to the communities where it staged nonviolent direct action campaigns. Critics charged that SCLC engineered short-lived confrontations, proclaimed victory on the basis of flimsy concessions from the “white power structure,” and then departed, leaving behind exhausted and vulnerable black communities. Conscious of this shortcoming and aware that the big-city milieu demanded a different strategy, when the SCLC went to Chicago in 1966 the organization was determined to exhibit staying power. To that end, it established Operation Breadbasket, a “don't-buy-where-you-can't-work” program intended to give SCLC a long-term organizational presence in the Windy City. Spearheaded by local ministers under the leadership of Jesse Jackson, a young SCLC staff member, Breadbasket endeavored to secure jobs for blacks in companies that had few black employees and to ensure that those companies did not exclude blacks from high-level positions. Using threatened and actual consumer boycotts, “between 1966 and 1971 Breadbasket filled at least 2,250 positions, in all classifications from unskilled to management, shattering the job ceiling” (p. 193). This account of Operation Breadbasket, written by a white pastor who served on the organization's steering committee, is a valuable addition to the history of the civil rights movement in Chicago. Drawing upon memory, interviews, and organizational records, Operation Breadbasket provides a rich insider's narrative that has the quality of a primary source. Yet while proud of Breadbasket's achievements and of his own role in them, Martin L. Deppe is by no means uncritical. Consumer boycotts often targeted economically struggling companies: jobs that were promised never materialized, and the number of stores accessible to black inner-city residents declined. Jackson, instructed by King to show ministers in other cities how to copy the Chicago's winning formula, showed little interest in making Operation Breadbasket a national program. The second half of Deppe's book reads as an extended critique of Jackson's leadership. Dynamic and charismatic, Jackson grew bored by Breadbasket's narrow focus on job creation, and he devoted more of his energy to promoting black entrepreneurship and organizing an annual Black Expo that raked in large sums of money. At the same time, gifts from black businessmen allowed Jackson to enjoy a luxurious life-style. As his ambitions mounted, Jackson became autocratic. Cultivating a mass following at Saturday morning “breakfasts,” he moved toward a “leadership style in which voting and consensus become simply suggestions to the leader, who makes all key decisions” (p. 157). Jackson's fertile brain spun out a plethora of ideas for new programs but, as Rev. Calvin Morris noted, “there was little serious thought or preparation to assure that the idea might be implemented” (p. 159). When Jackson's ambition led him to quit SCLC and launch Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity), the SCLC-affiliated Operation Breadbasket declined into insignificance. Any assessment of the program must surely affirm King's judgment that Breadbasket-style consumer boycotts, although certainly worthwhile, could only nibble at the edges of American capitalism. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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