Kali Akuno: The Black Liberation Movement and Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions: Lessons and Applications for the Palestinian Liberation Movement

The following article was published on Navigating the Storm on August 8, 2011:

The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions or BDS movement, launched in 2005 to uproot the zionist settler-colonial project and dismantle the Israeli apartheid state following the various setbacks to the Palestinian liberation movement stemming from the Oslo accords, is rapidly growing into a powerful international political force. As the movement continues to grow and expand it is bound to encounter more obstacles and roadblocks. One way to defeat these limitations is to study and learn how other peoples’ movements that have employed BDS strategies and tactics on an extensive level organized themselves to overcome or maneuver around the roadblocks on their path. One such movement is the Black Liberation Movement (BLM) in North America. The BLM has employed BDS strategies and tactics extensively for the greater part of the last 200 plus years in its unfinished question for liberation. What follows is a brief summary of the BLM’s experience and a short exploration of some of the lessons learned from this extensive experience.

The BLM has employed a broad range of strategies and tactics in its pursuit of liberation over the 500 long years of its existence, including mass rebellions, emigration, work stoppages, mass strikes, armed struggle, and international dipolmacy. Some of the most dynamic of the liberation strategies and tactics employed have centralized the comprehensive utilization of boycotts, divestment initiatives and sanctions, commonly known as BDS. The most dynamic element of these BDS initiatives is that when they have been successful they have been able to engage masses of people and harness limited individual capacities and transform them via collective activities into powerful social and political weapons. And they have often been able to accomplish this in creative ways that have reduced individual risk and minimized direct conflict with brutal and vastly more powerful enemies like the Klu Klux Klan, White Citizens Councils, the Southern Planter Elite, and the United States Government.

It can be soundly argued that the employment of BDS strategies and tactics within the BLM have their roots in antebellum or pre-Civil War initiatives to end chattel slavery and secure basic human dignities. One of the earliest recorded successes of a combined boycott and divestment initiative was the protest of the Black Community in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1787 led by Richard Allan and Absolom Jones against the racist practices and policies of the Methodist Episcopal Church. This initiative lead to the creation of the order of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816, which became a cornerstone in the institutional development of the Black Community in the United States. Another exemplary model from the antebellum period is drawn from the Abolitionist movement (under Black and white leadership on both sides of the Atlantic), which organized a boycott in the early 1790’s of the strategic goods of the triangular trade such as sugar, rum, tobacco, cotton, coffee, and dyes that built the empirical economies of the Atlantic ocean and laid the foundation for the capitalist world system. These boycotts played a major role in ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the United States and the United Kingdom by 1808.

BDS tactics within the BLM grew in considerable scope and application after the civil war. As African descendant people in the US have had very little access to capital until relatively recently, and even less substantive political power until the 1970’s, boycotts, rather than divestment and sanctions, have been the primary weapon in the BDS arsenal employed by the BLM. Between the 1860’s to 1940’s, a broad range of successful boycotts were organized by BLM forces that challenged the system of white supremacy and the institutions of oppression including government and private pension programs that excluded or exploited freed slaves and their descendants, lending agencies that exploited Black farmers, discriminatory transport systems and laws established at the turn of the 20th century, businesses that refused to hire or serve Black people, the US armed forces for discriminatory policies and engagements in imperial conquest, and the US government directly via the original March on Washington Movement led by A. Philip Randolph against racial oppression and discriminatory hiring and contracting practices.

The 1950’s witnessed the maturation of the BLM’s employment of boycott strategies. The Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott of 1955 – 1956, generally considered one of the three primary catalyzing moments of the high tide of struggle mounted by the BLM between the 1950’s – 1970’s (the other two being the Brown v Board of Education decision and the murder of Emmett Till), dealt a critical blow to the legally sanctioned policies and practices of white supremacy. Although the Montgomery Bus Boycott is generally portrayed as being the product of a spontaneous act and for canonizing the heroic actions and leadership of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., it was in all reality a deliberate and well thought out campaign based on years of preparation and planning. Montgomery however, was not the first boycott of its kind. Similar boycotts were organized in Mississippi, such as the one lead by TRM Howard against the lack of restroom facilities for Blacks on commuter buses in 1952 – 1953, and the Baton Rogue, Louisiana Bus Boycott of 1953 lead by Willis Reed and the Rev. TJ Jemison.

As previously noted, divestment strategies were not as widely employed in the BLM prior to the 1960’s. But, when they were employed they tended to serve as catalysts for Black institutional development. Most of the documented mass divestment initiatives employed by the forces of the BLM involved the removal of wealth, deeds, and insurance polices from financial institutions and insurance companies that brazenly supported the oppressive policies and practices of American Apartheid. The most successful of these divestment initiatives lead to the establishment of independent Black institutions such as banks, insurance companies and mutual aid societies, particularly before the Great Depression of the 1930’s which liquidated most of the wealth amassed by Black people after the Civil War. Two of the most successful divestment initiatives that translated into Black independent institutions occurred in Natchez, Mississippi and New Orleans, Louisiana where Blacks acted in mass by taking their merger savings from discriminatory institutions that denied them equal services – loans, medical assistance, burial funds, etc., and pooled them together to create mutual aid societies and banks. Initiatives such as this were employed after the Great Depression, more often to support a boycott initiative. But, they tended to be more short lived and limited in their impact as a result of capitals restructuring after WW II and the creation of various welfare state institutions that provided essential social services.

In the 1960’s the utilization of boycotts and divestment initiatives became less prominent in the overall orientation of the BLM primarily as a result of the defeat of the legalized dimensions of American apartheid and the attainment of more political power and social influence in the United States as a direct result of the success of the mass resistance mounted by the movement. Sanctions however, began to grow in both utilization and importance from the mid-1960’s on. The sanctions typically employed by the BLM concentrated on exerting intense political and economic pressure on government institutions and corporate enterprises to force them to comply with various demands, such as access to jobs, educational opportunities, community investment, and decent housing. This type of sanction was employed because then, as now, Blacks in North America have not been able to attain self-determination in the form of national independence to be able to enact state level sanctions. A few of the more successful sanction initiatives of this period targeted the automotive industry, colleges and universities, and state social welfare agencies over hiring, safety, access and quality administrative issues.

One of the most memorable and celebrated BDS initiatives employed by the BLM was an international initiative in support of the anti-Apartheid Movement of Azania (i.e. South Africa). The BLM and the Azanian or South African liberation movement share a long and deep history of solidarity and strategic collaboration going back to late 1800’s. From the 1920’s on, through the efforts of activists like Max Yergan and A.B. Xuma, the BLM and the South African liberation movement not only appealed to each other for inspiration and solidarity, but consistently shared strategies and tactics to aid their respective struggles. How to apply BDS strategies and tactics, particularly after the success of the Indian liberation movement – which the BLM and Azanian liberation movements both stood in active solidarity with – in attaining independence from the British empire in 1947, and that of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, became a common feature of their exchanges. Upon the founding of the anti-Apartheid struggle by activists from the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa in London in 1959, BLM activists and organizers were some of the first international supporters to take up the call and organize solidarity initiatives throughout the United States. These initiatives began to gain critical mass beginning in the 1970’s through the initiatives of formations like the African Liberation Support Committee (ALSC) and Trans-Africa Forum. They played a major role in weakening the Apartheid regime economically and isolating it politically be getting North American cultural workers (artists, academics, and athletes) to honor the boycott call, forcing several major American corporations to divest from the South African economy, and in forming a solid political block in the US Congress around the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to press for US government to enforce international sanctions of the regime. This long history of solidarity played a critical role in the collapse of the Apartheid state in the late 1980’s and the transition to majority democratic rule in 1994.

The BLM was not playing favorites in its international support of the Azanian liberation movement it should be noted. It also employed BDS strategies and tactics in support of numerous national and social liberation movements in Africa – most notably those of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Zimbabwe, and Congo/Zaire – where it called on the US government and the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) to stop arming and supporting the colonial empire of Portugal, the white settler regime in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), or for the US government to sanction and US corporations to divest from the reactionary Mobutu regime in Zaire after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.

What the history of the BLM’s employment of BDS strategies and tactics illustrates is that they can clearly be successful in advancing and attaining some of the critical objectives of a peoples’ liberation movement. However, as the uncompleted struggle for Black liberation in North America testifies to, they, like all strategies and tactics, have their limitations. Where BDS strategies and tactics have tended to be most successful in the history of the BLM has been when mass self-reliant resistance was employed to confront a target that was either dependent on Black labor or economic patronage, typically the utilization of a service like transportation or the consumption of a product, or when boycott and divestment campaigns lead to the establishment of Black autonomous or independent institutions. Another critical factor in the success, or failure, of BDS tactics in the service of the BLM was the degree to which they shamed the US government in the context of the Cold War or constrained its operations in the Third World. However, it should be noted that while Pan-Africanism and the eliciting of international solidarity have been central to the BLM since the era of slave rebellions, maroon societies, and the abolitionist movement, and was extensively mobilized between the 1880’s – 1900’s, the 1920’s – 40’s, and again in the 1960’s – 80’s, the BDS initiatives of the BLM tended to be insular or self-reliant mobilizations that self-consciously depended on the strength of the Black masses themselves.

These historical and contextual lessons from the BLM are critical for the Palestinian BDS movement to internalize and incorporate where applicable. As the Palestinian BDS movement is currently modeled more on the example of the anti-Apartheid movement than the BLM (or Indian) example, it possess some of the limitations of that particular movement, particularly the reliance on Palestinian exiles and descendants in the diaspora for leadership and non-Palestinains throughout the world for support and patronage. Exiles or their descendants in the diaspora can sometimes be gravely out of touch with realities on the ground in their homelands, non-Palestinians who engage the movement in various capacities can sometimes have little regard for the necessity of Palestinian self-determination for determining the course of the struggle, and the general support of international allies can often be whimsical and conditional. The balance of forces in the world must also be taken into strategic consideration. The lack of a critical mass of progressive nation-states, as existed in the 1960’s and 70’s for instance, limits the threat of sanctions, and the general weakness of progressive social movements the world over (even with the inspiration of the so-called “Arab Spring”) sets some constraints regarding both reach and depth on the employment of boycott and divestment initiatives.

These are the fundamental limitations related to the anti-Apartheid model of BDS. The primary limitation regarding the utilization of a more BLM oriented model pivots on the role of Palestinian labor in the interrelated and interdependent political economies of Palestine and the zionist nation-state. The Palestinian economy, namely that of Gaza and the West Bank, is severely constricted by what is in effect an Israeli and US-led embargo (in the case of Gaza its actually a full on military blockade), while Palestinian workers are rapidly joining the ranks of the worlds excluded, dispossessed and disposable populations due to the embargo and wholesale replacement in the Israeli economy by super-exploitable migrant workers imported from Southeast Asia and Africa. Prior to the 1st Intifada, the Israeli economy was largely dependent on Palestinian labor. Israeli capital, in unison with the Israeli nation-state, took deliberate steps after the 1st Intifada to make sure that Palestinian labor could never critically disrupt the economy again, hence the replacement. Palestinian labors limited ability to disrupt the Israeli economy means that it is limited in its ability to employ many of the successful BDS methods employed by the BLM in the 20th century.

However, as the example of the BLM illustrates, none of these challenges are insurmountable. The Palestinian liberation movement and its allies can and should learn a great deal from the BSM movements employed by the Black, Azanian, and Indian liberation movements, but take head that none of them can be copied whole cloth. In the final analysis, the Palestinian BDS movement is going to have to blaze its own course to address the conditions of the present era and those of the future. Those of us committed to the cause of Palestinian liberation and see the BDS movement as an essential tool to attain it would do well to take stock of the lessons that can be gained from critically examining a protracted struggle like the BLM, and prepare ourselves to embark on a long marathon down freedom’s road.

1. August Meier and Elliot Rudwick, “Black Boycotts before Montgomery”, Ebony Magazine, 1969. See http://books.google.com/books?id=09oDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA154&lpg=PA154&dq=boycotts+before&source=bl&ots=8ovB72dlY9&sig=XfYbDul8Lre4tHax_ZOmztjAu38&hl=en&ei=krI8Tu76K4bLgQfS9_DtBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&sqi=2&ved=0CBkQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=boycotts%20before&f=false.
2. Debbie Elliot, “The First Civil Rights Bus Boycott: 50 years ago, Baton Rogue Jim Crow Protest Made History”, National Public Radio, June 19, 2003. See http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1304163.
3. Horace Campbell, “The End of Empires: African Americans and India”, 2008.
4. William Minter, Gail Hovey, and Charles Cobb Jr, editors, “No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950 – 2000”, 2008.
5. Penny M. Von Eschen, “Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anti-Colonialism, 1937 – 1957”, 1997.
6. Peter M. Bergman, Mort N. Bergman, “The Chronological History of the Negro in America”, 1969.
7. John, H. Bracey Jr, August Meier, and Elliott Rudwick, editors, “Black Nationalism in Amerca”, 1970.
8. August Meier, Elliot Rudwick, and Francis L. Broderick, editors, “Black Protest Thought in the Twentieth Century”, 1971.
9. Elliott P. Skinner, “African Americans and US Policy Toward Africa, 1850 – 1924: In Defense of Black Nationality”, 1992.
10. Juliet E. K. Walker, “The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship, Volume 1, to 1865”, 2009.
11. James H. Meriwether, “Proudly We Can Be Africans: Black Americans and Africa, 1935 – 1961”, 2002.
12. Carol Anderson, “Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944 – 1955”, 2003.
13. Charles P. Henry, editor, “Foreign Policy and the Black (Inter)National Interest”, 2000.
14. Thomas Borstelmann, “The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race relations in the Global Arena”, 2001.
15. Mary Dudziak, “Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy”, 2000.
16. Brenda Gayle Plummer, editor, “Window on Freedom: Race, Civil Rights, and Foreign Affairs 1945 – 1988”, 2003.

Kali Akuno is the National Coordinator for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXMG) and the Co-Director of the US Human Rights Nework (USHRN). Kali is currently working on a book tentatively entitled “Confronting a Cleansing: Hurricane Katrina, the Battle for New Orleans, and the Future of the Black Working Class”. The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of MXGM or USHRN. Email feedback to: kaliakuno@gmail.com.

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