Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the American South

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The civil rights movement was also a struggle for economic justice, one that until now has not had its own history. Sharing the Prize demonstrates the significant material gains black southerners made—in improved job opportunities, quality of education, and health care—from the 1960s to the 1970s and beyond. Because black advances did not come at the expense of southern whites, Gavin Wright argues, the civil rights struggle was that rarest of social revolutions: one that benefits both sides.

From the beginning, black activists sought economic justice in addition to full legal rights. The southern bus boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins were famous acts of civil disobedience, but they were also demands for jobs in the very services being denied blacks. In the period of enforced desegregation following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the wages of southern black workers increased dramatically. Wright’s painstaking documentation of this fact undermines beliefs that government intervention was unnecessary, that discrimination was irrational, and that segregation would gradually disappear once the market was allowed to work. Wright also explains why white southerners defended for so long a system that failed to serve their own best interests.

Sharing the Prize makes clear that the material benefits of the civil rights acts of the 1960s are as significant as the moral ones—an especially timely achievement as these monumental pieces of legislation, and the efficacy of governmental intervention more broadly, face new challenges.

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Editorial Reviews

James C. Cobb
By placing economics at the heart of his investigation of the central issues of the civil rights movement, Wright deepens and expands our understanding of what was at stake for those who participated in the civil rights movement as well as those who opposed it.
Naomi R. Lamoreaux
Sharing the Prize transforms quite dramatically our understanding of the economics of the civil rights movement in the South, showing how the civil disobedience of black Southerners wrought a transformation that improved the lives of whites as well as blacks.
Peter A. Coclanis
Sharing the Prize is an exceptionally rich study of the civil rights revolution in the American South and will immediately become the book on its economic dimensions.
Kenneth J. Arrow
Gavin Wright has written a definitive study of the economic implications of the civil rights revolution in the American South. He shows that while highly useful, economic analysis must be richer and more socially oriented than usual in characterizing the nature of racial discrimination in the South.
The Economist
Wright argues that government action spurred by the civil-rights movement corrected a misfiring market, generating large economic gains that private companies had been unable to seize on their own.
Choice - J. L. Rosenbloom
The civil rights movement of the 1960s has had a lasting impact on American society. Although it has hardly been neglected by historians, until now there has been no comprehensive economic interpretation of these events. In this volume, Wright offers an important and illuminating reinterpretation of the civil rights movement and its consequences for both black and white economic progress in the subsequent half century.
New York Review of Books - Ira Katxnelson
Written by Stanford’s Gavin Wright with the care and imagination he displayed in his superb work on slavery and the southern economy since the Civil War, this excellent economic history offers the best empirical account to date of the effects the civil rights revolution had on southern labor markets, schools, and other important institutions…With much of the nation persuaded that a post-racial age has begun, Wright’s analytical history…takes on fresh urgency.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674049338
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 2/28/2013
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 696,688
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Gavin Wright is William Robertson Coe Professor of American Economic History at Stanford University.
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Three: Southern Business and Public Accommodations, An Economic-Historical Paradox

If private-sector desegregation was up for grabs in the early 1960s, when did the tide turn, and what was the cause? A perusal of the pages of national retail trade periodicals such as Women’s Wear Daily tells a central part of the story: sit-ins and boycotts did real damage to retail businesses, especially in the downtown shopping districts of southern cities. The losses had at least two components: denial of black patronage for political reasons, and diversion of white customers deterred by disruption and turmoil. The Woolworth’s manager in Greensboro estimated that only five percent of his trade was from black customers; yet sales fell by 20 percent in 1960, and profits by 50 percent. In many cases, when businesses were resistant to sit-ins, local Civil Rights groups announced boycotts of some or all businesses. In Nashville, where blacks represented 30 percent of downtown customers, a black boycott in support of the sit-ins was believed to be around 98 percent effective.

From Greensboro, the business press seemed fixated on the threat; hardly a week went by without coverage of the issue, often with a series of brief updates on events in various cities. Precise quantification of the impact is beyond reach, but the major headlines speak for themselves: “Negro Protests Plague Chains, No End in Sight;” “Retail Losses Cited in Negro Sitdowns, Spread is Feared;” “Segregation Issue Still Disturbing Retail Scene;” “Boycott Hurts in Nashville.” As one Washington source put it: “Merchants aren’t saying much about this, but they’re scared to death, because they are afraid they will lose business either way.”

Although many dismissive statements were issued both by national and local spokesmen—indeed there is no evidence that southern protests had detectable effects on national chain-store profits, even when supplemented by pickets in northern cities—their underlying apprehensiveness was not hard to detect. In one anonymous interview, the manager of a variety store “afflicted by the spreading sitdown controversy over segregated eating facilities” reported that sales fell between 20 and 30 percent during protests. The manager worried that the problem would hurt future expansion plans, because some will stay out “until this thing blows over—and the end doesn’t show the slightest inkling of being in sight.” More potent than current losses were fears for the future. According to New York Times interviews, the paramount concern voiced by urban merchants was “a fear that prolonged racial tensions might drive customers of both races into the suburban shopping centers never to return .º.º. Downtown stores in all [Southern cities] have felt the keen knife of competition from the suburbs.”

Thus, when the demonstrators showed their persistence by returning for new rounds of protest, business and civic leaders in many cities were ready to acquiesce, especially in the border states. The earliest major cities to announce plans to desegregate public accommodations were San Antonio and Galveston, Texas, and Baltimore Maryland, in March and April, 1960. In Dallas, lunch counters were desegregated in June 1960, and a committee of business and civic leaders coordinated full downtown integration as of July 26, 1961. In Nashville, an agreement to desegregate lunch counters was reached in May, 1960, after weeks of secret negotiations, providing the first success at a major southern city outside of Texas. In Richmond, Virginia, the two largest department stores desegregated their eating places in January, 1961, and a lengthy boycott ended in August of that year when agreement was reached with seven downtown stores. All told, lunch counters in over a hundred cities dropped race barriers within a year of the first sit-ins, and the number continued to rise over the next two years.

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