Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are being emancipated, and now corporate America promises to tackle the crueler substructures of racism: impediments to opportunity that, perhaps as much as police brutality, explain why George Floyd went from a second-grader with dreams of becoming a Supreme Court justice to a dead man under a cop’s knee because of a fake $20 bill. The “racial equality and justice solutions” being explored by a new subcommittee of the Business Roundtable will take time and benchmarks.
But there is an essential transformation the C-suite could set in motion immediately: Defund the toxic political culture, or at least its most conspicuous instrument, that makes progress difficult if not impossible and turns second thoughts about a mammy-esque syrup bottle into “they murdered Mrs. Butterworth,” as a recent guest on Fox News fumed.
If the CEOs mean business, they will find an unlikely but useful (if somewhat squirrely) blueprint for change in “The Year of Birmingham,” the name the civil rights movement gave to 1963’s tectonic shift on civil rights, which has lately re-entered the news cycle. Martin Luther King Jr.’s epic demonstrations that spring set the standard for the George Floyd mass marches—and for the opposition response. The German shepherds that police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor used against King’s young foot soldiers made a recent comeback as “the most vicious dogs” tweet-sicced by Donald Trump.
That’s all well known. But there’s an overlooked paradigm from 1963, and it calls out directly to the corporate elite: the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce’s marriage of necessity to the civil rights movement. By the time King disturbed what he called the “obnoxious negative peace” there, the steel-producing Pittsburgh of the South was a dying workshop town propped up by the girders of apartheid.
Because they realized they faced either change or social breakdown, the city fathers went against every fiber in their segregationist, controversy-averse conditioning to strike a deal with King. That agreement led to the desegregation of Birmingham’s public spaces a full year before it was federally mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964—the direct result of King’s marches. It was a remarkable, voluntary-ish end to a “Way of Life” held sacred.
Today’s newly woke business leaders are also positioned to do something transformative, swift, and unilateral, if they focus on a single variable: the political propellent crucial to the election of our first white-only president. Fox News weaponized a minority constituency to gain majority power and has also helped render Trump unaccountable by maintaining an aroused and misinformed base to body-check irresolute congressional Republicans.
More relevant to corporate priorities, Fox has jacked up partisanship into a primetime dystopia that should give sponsors pause. Do they really want the babies in their disposable-diaper commercials to share airtime with a Texas politician comparing Seattle to a Middle Eastern town taken over by ISIS?
For America’s brands, de-sponsoring Fox News may have become the smart as well as right thing to do. Here, Birmingham offers a template for risk minimization. Two years before King came to town, the Chamber of Commerce had decided it had to address the city’s race problem following a Ku Klux Klan attack against the Freedom Riders, orchestrated by Bull Connor.
Out of that emerged the so-called Senior Citizens Committee—around 75 industrialists, bankers, and executives, a municipal precursor of the Business Roundtable—who in 1963 permitted (sorta, in theory) their people to negotiate with King’s people, as long as their own names were not revealed. A real estate developer named Sidney Smyer volunteered to take the fall publicly, explaining why he was choosing economic survival over principle: “I’m a segregationist, but I’m not a damn fool.” In other words, he was doing it because he had to, not because he wanted to.
Like the Senior Citizens, Fox’s corporate sponsors should act en bloc with Spartacus-like anonymity and withdraw advertising with no explanation (“our priorities have changed”) and under no threat of a boycott, other than the implied buying power of the people out on the streets. The ad hoc cancelations they typically make—such as those currently hitting Tucker Carlson— do not necessarily dent the network’s revenues and may now smack of “performative allyship.” As the Klan and the civil rights movement were lumped together in the white Southern mind as “extremists on both sides,” false equivalencies will be drawn between Fox and MSNBC. But unconstructive as the left’s ministry of truth may be, it has not taken over a cable news channel or a political party or the White House.
The Senior Citizens’ names ended up in the paper anyway, and none suffered serious reprisals any more than Nike went out of business over its Colin Kaepernick ad campaign. When white supremacists called Smyer to say they were coming to “git” him, he said they’d have to guess which tree he was waiting behind with his gun. (Instead, Klansmen killed four African-American girls attending Sunday school four months later; the last living bomber of the 16th Street Baptist Church died on Friday.) Corporations are not being asked to put their lives on the line, or even stop marketing to Fox’s followers. Thanks to the science of audience targeting, that demographic can be reached on platforms that do not keep the country whipped up in a constant state of civil war.
Even if the norms of democratic self-government could be reclaimed from what the TV president Jed Bartlet called “the church of I Hate You,” our politics would still not be released from captivity to organized money. So the corporate anguish over inequality is meaningful only if it recognizes that the business model itself is failing.
Occupy Wall Street was ignored (by both parties), and its spirit returned as a competitive socialist candidate for president. But instead of heeding the signs that capitalism is becoming irreconcilable with democracy, the party of business doubled down with Donald Trump, a caricature of self-dealing corruption, who ended up demonstrating that the market was not the boss of a pandemic-dealing God after all.
The industrialists of Birmingham did more than their share to cause the crisis requiring their rearguard conversion in 1963—they put Bull Connor in office, and they quelled cross-racial labor solidarity through such “political” organizations as the League to Maintain White Supremacy. Earlier this month, Doug McMillon, the president of Walmart, pledged to invest $100 million toward remedying inequities that his company helped foster.
Walmart was among the corporate funders of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which salted its model pro-business legislation with “culturally” galvanizing pro-gun and voter-ID state laws. Walmart and other embarrassed companies exited ALEC in 2012 after one such statute, “Stand Your Ground,” became an issue in George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of unarmed Trayvon Martin. Out of Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal was born Black Lives Matter.
As that rallying cry brings hope of a sea change beyond the police reforms now in play, activists should keep in mind another lesson of Birmingham: Economic power gives up only as much as it must in order to preserve itself. ALEC is still alive and busy, promoting laws to shield employers against COVID-19-related claims from self-described “sacrificial” workers.
Meanwhile, Trump rally-goers willingly “assume all risks” of gathering in his name, secure in their president’s blessing. As long as “retail sales numbers are incredible,” they “will not have died in vain.” Their passing will not be noted on Fox, but Sean Hannity no doubt sends his condolences.
Diane McWhorter is the author of Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama—The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2002.