Tag Archives: activism

The Brotherhood of Liberty and Baltimore’s Place in the Black Freedom Struggle

By Dennis Patrick Halpin 

On June 2, 1885, Reverend Harvey Johnson called five of his fellow clergymen and close confidants —Ananias Brown, William Moncure Alexander, Patrick Henry Alexander, John Calvin Allen, and W. Charles Lawson—to his Baltimore home. During the previous year, Johnson had orchestrated challenges to public transportation segregation and Maryland’s prohibition on black attorneys. Now he hoped to accelerate the fight for racial equality by forming Baltimore’s first civil rights organization, the Mutual United Brotherhood of Liberty.harveyjohnson.jpg

The founding of the Brotherhood of Liberty was a turning point in the long history of the black freedom struggle. The Brotherhood, active between 1885 and 1891, was not only Baltimore’s first civil rights organization but also one of the first in the nation. Its vision for racial equality, its strategies, and its uncompromising demand for civil rights laid the groundwork for later national groups including the Afro-American League and the Niagara Movement.[1] The organization also made Baltimore the epicenter for movements that challenged the emergence of Jim Crow in the late nineteenth century.

Johnson’s decision to form the Brotherhood did not occur in a vacuum. In fact, Baltimore’s history and circumstances made it particularly fertile grounds for civil rights activism by the time Johnson organized the Brotherhood. Baltimore had straddled the border between different worlds. It was a city with slaves located in a slave state. But Marylanders were divided on the issue of slavery, and the institution’s importance to Baltimore’s economy waned as the Civil War approached. By the 1830s, Baltimore was home to the largest free black population in the country. Free black Baltimoreans had organized schools and protested against slavery and colonization throughout the antebellum era. Finally, Baltimore was a port city that welcomed immigrants and their presence would make instituting Jim Crow complicated for segregationists in Maryland.[2]

Baltimore’s borderland status continued to play a role during the Reconstruction Era. Although it is tempting to see the Border States as the moderate middle between the Confederacy and the Union, this borderland status actually made states like Maryland more fraught for African Americans after the Civil War. Since Maryland had not seceded from the Union, it did not undergo federal Reconstruction like states further south. Furthermore, Maryland did not have a strong Republican Party, which had helped African Americans vote and win elected office throughout the former Confederacy. In 1868, the Democratic Party had regained control over the state government and rewrote the state constitution to negate the meager steps Maryland had taken towards racial equality.

With political avenues all but closed, black Marylanders (including many Baltimoreans) built upon the activism of the antebellum era by adjusting it to match the realities of the post-emancipation world. During Reconstruction, the federal government passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which guaranteed “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property” regardless of race.[3] African Americans used this legislation to ignite a new era of political and social protest in Maryland through the courts. Throughout the 1860s and early 1870s, black Marylanders mounted several legal challenges to racial inequality. African Americans contested a law that barred them from testifying in court against white citizens. They petitioned the courts to end the odious practice of “involuntary apprenticeship” that allowed slaveowners to extend the life of slavery past the end of the Civil War. Between 1866 and 1871, a number of black Baltimorean men and women either purposefully violated segregation laws or filed lawsuits to challenge discrimination. Their efforts paid off: in 1871, the US Circuit court ordered streetcars open to black and white riders; black Baltimoreans had desegregated public transit in the city.

Isaac_Myers
Isaac Myers

During this period, black Baltimoreans also looked beyond Maryland’s borders. Activists sought to make common cause with African Americans in other Border States and further south in order to pressure the federal government to intercede on their behalf. Black Baltimoreans planned and hosted a Colored Border States Convention in 1868. The next year they organized a National Convention of Colored Men to demand racial equality. Isaac Myers—an entrepreneur, activist, and labor organizer—started his efforts locally. After white waterfront workers forced black caulkers from the jobsite on the Baltimore waterfront in 1866 he helped build a co-operative shipyard to provide needed jobs. Myers then looked nationally when he helped organize the National Colored Labor Union in 1869.

This was the politically charged atmosphere that Harvey Johnson entered when he moved to Baltimore in 1872. Johnson was born into slavery in Fauquier County, Virginia in 1843. In 1868, the twenty-five year old Johnson found his calling in the Baptist church and moved to Washington, D.C. to enroll at Wayland Seminary. After graduating, Johnson accepted a pastorate at the small Union Baptist Church in Baltimore, which at the time only had 250 members. Johnson initially focused on expanding his church. By 1875, Johnson grew the church’s membership to 928 congregants. By 1885, Union Baptist had over 2,200 parishioners, which made it the largest and most influential black church in Baltimore.[4] Just as importantly, Johnson helped build new black Baptist churches across the city and state in the 1870s and 1880s.  In total, at least fourteen churches and eleven ministers traced their roots to Union Baptist and/or Johnson’s mentorship.[5] These churches not only tended to the spiritual needs of black Baltimoreans but also provided spaces to organize. At each of these churches, Johnson’s allies became ministers and political allies.

As Johnson and his cohorts were building their churches, African-American activism in the city underwent important changes. In part, this was influenced by national developments. In early 1883 the Supreme Court upended parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1875. This meant that the federal government could no longer assure African Americans equal accommodations and equality on transportation, or guarantee that they could serve on juries. This decision came on the heels of others that had scaled back the protections instituted during Reconstruction.

These developments infuriated Johnson and other activists. Beginning in the early 1880s, many black Baltimoreans advocated abandoning both political parties. Johnson was one of these individuals. At a meeting in 1883, Johnson said “that the condition of the colored people of Maryland was worse than in any other State, that the laws relative to them were enacted before the war were still in force.” The minister listed numerous wrongs including the state’s prohibition on black attorneys, its bastardy law that punished African-American women, and its jury selection system that excluded black Marylanders. For Johnson, the moment to act had come. He ended his speech by predicting that “the day was dawning when the power of the colored people in Maryland would be seen and felt.”[6] What is particularly interesting about Johnson’s speech is that the wrongs he listed would all be things that he challenged individually or as part of the Brotherhood.

out-26About year after this speech, Johnson and his parishioners opened a new chapter in Baltimore’s fight for equality. The events of 1884 and 1885 were crucial in Johnson’s plan to build a civil rights organization in Baltimore. On August 15, 1884, six of Johnson’s parishioners boarded the Steamer Sue, which plied the waters between Maryland and Virginia. The travelers—including Martha Stewart, Winnie Stewart, Mary M. Johnson, and Lucy Jones—had reserved a first-class sleeping cabin for the night’s journey. When they attempted to retire for the evening, the steamboat’s agents refused them entrance and offered to house them in “first class” accommodations reserved for blacks in another part of the ship.

The women, who had previously taken this journey and knew that they were likely to face discrimination, had experience challenging their treatment. In 1882, Winnie Stewart recalled that two of her sisters had refused the steamboat operator’s demands to leave their first class accommodations. The women’s aunt, Pauline Braxton, had similarly refused these orders on another earlier voyage. Upon their return to Baltimore, Johnson helped them file a lawsuit against the Baltimore, Chesapeake and Richmond Steamboat Company that operated the Steamer Sue on the grounds that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The women prevailed, though the damages they recovered were considerably less than they had hoped for and the judge issued a narrow ruling that did not speak to the larger questions about whether segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment.[7]

Despite the limited victory, Johnson was encouraged. In the wake of the Steamer Sue case, he spearheaded a new effort to get a black attorney admitted to the Baltimore bar. In 1885, Johnson contacted Charles S. Wilson. The thirty-year-old Wilson had graduated from Amherst College. After earning his license to practice law, he worked as an attorney in Boston before he moved to Maryland to teach in the town of Sunnybrook.[8] Wilson agreed to challenge Maryland’s prohibition of black attorneys before the city’s Supreme Bench on the grounds that the exclusion violated the Fourteenth Amendment. On March 19, 1885 the city’s Supreme Bench overturned Maryland’s 1872 exclusionary law, although their decision only applied in Baltimore.[9] For African Americans the decision was an important victory. Activists could now hire attorneys dedicated to fighting inequality.

The culmination of these two cases helped Johnson lay the foundation for the Brotherhood of Liberty. Local grievances and developments were important catalysts but Johnson was also influenced by national developments. The Brotherhood’s founding came at an important juncture in the long struggle for civil rights. During the early 1880s, African-American journalists across the nation, including Ida B. Wells, T. Thomas Fortune, and John Mitchell, Jr. used their newspapers to challenge the advent of Jim Crow. In New York, Fortune—whose newspapers were read in Baltimore—began promoting the idea of a permanent, non-partisan civil rights organization as early as 1884. Although it would take years for Fortune to realize his plan, the Brotherhood quickly incorporated many of his ideas to challenge racial inequality in Maryland. The group organized independently, demanded the fulfillment of the Constitution’s promises of civil rights, and aggressively challenged discrimination.

Over the course of the next six years the Brotherhood became a force in Baltimore and Maryland. After overturning Baltimore’s prohibition on black attorneys, Johnson convinced recent Howard graduates Everett J. Waring and Joseph S. Davis to move to Baltimore. With their legal team set, the group helped organize a successful challenge to Maryland’s prejudicial bastardy law. They undertook numerous protests against educational inequality, eventually compelling the city to fund a new African American high school and staff it with black teachers. The Brotherhood also defended black laborers who had rebelled over deplorable working conditions on Navassa Island, located off the coast of Haiti. That case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court where the Brotherhood’s Everett J. Waring became the first black attorney to present an argument before the highest court in the land.Waring

As politicians, citizens, and the courts slowly rolled back the modest gains made during Reconstruction, the Brotherhood of Liberty challenged the dictates of the emerging Jim Crow Era. Even as the organization faded in the early 1890s it left behind important legacies. Johnson and Alexander continued to lead a variety of movements for racial justice in the city. Johnson would become one of the earliest members of the Niagara Movement, the forerunner to the NAACP, while Alexander organized efforts in the early 1900s to stop Jim Crow disfranchisement. On August 13, 1892, Alexander published the first issue of the Afro-American from Sharon Baptist. In the years to follow, the Afro-American became a potent counterweight to the city’s white papers, provided a platform for black businesses, churches, and individuals and, perhaps most importantly, served to highlight nationwide and local racial injustices, as well as the efforts of activists to fight them. Alexander would successfully lead the fight against Maryland’s efforts to disfranchise African Americans in the early 1900s.[10]

For many black Baltimoreans, the modest steps toward equality in the Reconstruction Era did not occur between 1865 and 1877 as they had for African Americans living further South. Instead, they began in 1884 when black Baltimoreans spearheaded judicial challenges to inequality and organized the Brotherhood of Liberty. The Brotherhood’s use of test case litigation also reverberated throughout the nation. In 1887, T. Thomas Fortune contemplated the direction of his Afro-American League, the first nationwide civil rights organization. Joseph S. Davis, one of the Brotherhood’s attorneys, wrote to Fortune’s New York Freeman to offer his support and weigh in on the deliberations. “The time has come when we have got to fight our greatest battles,” Davis declared, “and win our greatest victories in the courts and at the bar of public opinion.” Davis proposed pursuing test cases to achieve civil rights to “try the strength of our great Constitution.” “To accomplish this result we must follow such cases as are suitable from the station house to the Supreme Court. We must employ the best legal talent attainable,” Davis argued, “and we must pay these men and pay them well. Here the League can make itself heard, felt and respected.”[11] Davis spoke from experience. This was a vision that the Brotherhood of Liberty had already put into practice in Maryland. Now it would serve as the blueprint that other national civil groups would follow throughout much of the twentieth century.

Dennis Halpin

Dennis Patrick Halpin is an Assistant Professor of History at Virginia Tech.  His book, A Brotherhood of Liberty: Black Reconstruction and its Legacies in Baltimore, 1865-1920, is forthcoming from the University of Pennsylvania in spring 2019.   

 

[1] For more information on the early stages of the black freedom struggle in the United States, see: Susan D. Carle, Defining the Struggle: National Organizing for Racial Justice, 1880-1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) and Shawn Leigh Alexander, An Army of Lions: The Civil Rights Struggle Before the NAACP (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[2] Black Baltimoreans developed a history of activism stretching back to the antebellum era. For Baltimore’s antebellum era, see Christopher Philips, Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997), Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009) and Martha S. Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[3] “The Civil Rights Bill and its Consequences,” The Baltimore Sun 9 April 1866, p. 2.

[4] George F. Adams, Baptist Churches of Maryland (Baltimore: J.F. Weishampel, Jr. 1885) p. 130-32 and A.W. Pegues, Our Baptist Ministers and Schools (Willey & Co: Springfield, MA 1892) 89, 291.

[5] “Funeral of Reverend Wm. M. Alexander on Monday,” The Afro-American Ledger 11 April 1919, p. A1 and “Sharon Baptist Church,” The Afro-American Ledger 17 February 1912, p. 7. A. Briscoe Koger, “Dr. Harvey Johnson—Pioneer Civic Leader,” (Baltimore: Self-Published, 1957) 3.

[6] “Movement of Colored People,” The Baltimore Sun 25 April 1882, p. 1.

[7] Accounts of the “Steamer Sue” case taken from: “District Court, D. Maryland. The Sue,” Westlaw 2 Feb. 1885 22F.843; Koger, “Dr. Harvey Johnson: Minister and Pioneer Civic Leader, 9-10; “Colored Passengers,” The Baltimore Sun 3 February 1885, p. 6.

[8] “Can Colored Men Be Lawyers,” The Baltimore Sun 16 February 1885, p. 6 and F. Johnson, “Legal Lights of Baltimore,” The Afro-American Ledger 26 March 1910, p. 6.

[9] “Admitted to the Bar,” The Baltimore Sun 20 March 1885, p. 1 and “Admission of Colored Lawyers to the Bar,” The Baltimore Sun 20 March 1885, p. 2.

[10] For information on the publishing history of the Afro-American see: Hayward Farrar, The Baltimore Afro-American, 1892-1950 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998).

[11] Joseph S. Davis, “A Baltimore Lawyer’s View of the Case,” The New York Freeman 16 July 1887, p. 1. I found this letter through: Carle, Defining the Struggle, p. 56.

Activism wrapped in capitalism: Josh Clark Davis on Activist Entrepreneurs in the 20th Century

“We now know that, during the Cold War, consumerism came to be increasingly tied to American citizenship in a particularly gendered form of privatization that occasionally surfaced into public politics,” noted Elaine Lewinnek in her review essay on architecture and consumerism in the July 2017 issue of the Journal of Urban History.[1] As evidenced by Lewinnek’s statement, it would be hard to deny the power of consumerism in American culture. More recently in the twenty first century, Presidents have framed consumerism as a central aspect of citizenship and a means to happiness amidst tragedy. “Get down to Disney World in Florida,” President George W. Bush told the American public after the 9/11 attacks. “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” Our current president arguably occupies the White House due in large part to his success hawking what he perceives as “the good life” whether through reality TV or the odd cable shopping network; he even included a random, tone deaf plug for his winery as his disastrous August 15th press conference concluded. On the left, consumerism has no shortage of critics; Naomi Klein and Michael Moore regularly assail Corporate America.

Unsurprisingly, academics have found in consumerism a rich cultural vein from which some profound revelations about post World War II America can be extracted. Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003) remains mandatory reading for anyone studying ideas, government policies, and ideologies related to post World War II twentieth century consumerism and citizenship. Numerous other historians have contributed significantly to the discussion. Robert Weems, Lawrence Glickman, Kathy Piess, and Susan Benson serve as just four very notable examples; collectively they address class, race, and gender in America through an exploration of consumer behavior and activism.[2] One could easily add Meg Jacobs and Tracey Deutsch, who each have shared their own insights relating to “economic citizenship” particularly in regard to the government’s promotion of this idea, and its connection to gender.[3]

The study of consumerism includes the spaces that postwar shoppers inhabited. William Leach examined how business, finance, industry, and government intersected to create the nation’s mass consumer culture in the early decades of the twentieth century United States.[4] Long the dean of vernacular retail architecture, Richard Longstreth documented and illustrated the processes by which suburban and urban retail were transformed by business leaders, consumers, and in many cases, cars, both in terms of geography and the new spatial relations that business created for shoppers and the shopping experience.[5]

Gabrielle Esperdy and Andrew M. Shanken have also contributed work that comments on consumerism in other ways.[6] Esperdy explores the Modernization Credit Plan, part of the National Housing Act of 1934 as well as two public relations programs run through the Federal Housing Association, “Modernize Main Street” and “Better Housing Program.” She argues that though ignored, these smaller aspects of the New Deal program cast a broad influence such as through the mobilization of $5 billion in a depression era attempt to improve store fronts while promoting the idea of retail “main streets” as a symbol of commercial uplift and solution to economic decline. In many ways, Shanken’s work picks up soon after Esperdy leaves off with architects and urban planners attempting to puzzle out a postwar economic program during World War II. In doing so, he traces the discourse that popularized modernism in the U.S., provided new urban planning models, and impacted the nation in ways that exceeded architecture.

I will not even mention studies on international cities or parallel transnational works. They are legion and for our purposes here, regrettably omitted.

Josh Davis

Yet while the force of consumerism has received domestic and transnational attention, among historians the focus most often remains on corporate entities (or large scale enterprises), government planning, and a consumerist public that sways from apathy to resistance. Many, though not all, of the historians above discussed consumerism amidst the expansion of mass consumer culture in the 1920s, the rise of the social welfare state during the New Deal, World War II era U.S. and even the postwar prosperity of “consensus liberalism”.

Fewer scholars have endeavored to study the small business side of the consumerist politics during the 1960s and 1970s. In his new book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, urban historian Josh Clark Davis explores the intersection of 1960s/1970s social movements and small business activism that promoted black power and civil rights, feminism, drug reform (ok, access to and legalization of marijuana), and natural food.

Focusing largely on bookstores, small presses, head shops, and organic food markets, Davis argues that “activist entrepreneurs” reimagined “the products, places, and processes of American business,” and by doing so, laid the groundwork for an admittedly “less radical” vision but one that “lives on—albeit fragmented and diluted—in the language, products, and goals of countless American companies today.”[7] Despite Davis’ less optimistic view of the business landscape, it remains difficult to deny that the idea of corporate citizenship, at the very least in terms of rhetoric, today bears some relation to the efforts of Davis’ activist entrepreneurs. The irony of politically radical entrepreneurs establishing the, or perhaps more modestly, a template for the corporate citizen of today will not be lost on readers.[8]

Whole Foods Head Shops.jpg

The book traverses the United States. Davis carries us to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Austin, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Detroit, and elsewhere. Activist entrepreneurs believed small businesses to be “the backbone of democracy” as “community institutions.” For example, Washington D.C.’s Drum and Spear Bookstore, specializing in works by black authors and promoting black nationalism and civil rights, operated as an arm of a non-profit. The owners of the Psychedelic Shop in San Francisco transformed a part of their business into a meditation room, “The Calm Center”, in an attempt to make the store “a headquarters for hippies seeking community and enlightenment as well as a refuge from the increasingly rough streets in the Haight.”[9] In this way, though not focused on the physical architecture like Longstreth or Leach, Davis explores these businesses as spaces of ideology and political engagement.

Throughout Davis navigates a variety of causes and businesses, most struggle with the same multi-armed tension: maintaining a successful business while critiquing capitalism and all it’s evils, promoting a political cause, and embodying the values of the social movement—be it feminism, the counterculture, civil rights, black power, or natural food—that served as its foundation. In some cases, most notably natural foods, labor practices and policies conflicted with business.

Resistance to entrepreneur activism not only came from without, but also from within. Many activist entrepreneurs endured attacks from the social movements they hoped to advance; distrust of capitalism by civil rights leaders, particularly among the black power wing of the movement, often led to criticism. “The central contradiction in activist business was that entrepreneurs who objected to capitalism still had to make money to survive,” writes Davis. They weren’t exploiting idealism and politics for financial gain, however. Davis’s activist entrepreneurs were grinders who “wanted their enterprises to survive in the long term.” There was rarely the opportunity to sell out for wealth and fame. “[T]he greatest threat to activist entrepreneurs was not being co-opted but simply going out of business,” notes Davis.[10]

Though the tension between dedication to the movement and the ability to stay afloat as a business tested all activist entrepreneurs, it manifested itself the most vociferously in the feminist movement. Granted, black bookstores initially struggled to win over some black nationalists, especially those who viewed capitalist enterprises warily, but by the late 1960s, most had embraced it.

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“Women are happening”, Women’s Interart Center, NY, NY, 1967-1978, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Within feminism, the idea of activist businesses proved more divisive. Susan Sojourner, owner of The First Things Bookstore in Washington D.C., noted that most “movement non-businesswomen” believed that activist entrepreneur enterprises sought to rip off, exploit, leach and profit from feminism. In this way, From Head Shops to Whole Foods documents the fault lines and points of disagreement among various movements.

In the case of feminism, some activist entrepreneurs clearly felt that too many feminists promoted a mythical womanhood. Lorraine Allen, owner of a specialty toiletry company Equation Collective, explained the plight of her fellow female activist entrepreneurs by skewering such ideas. “Just when the movement tried to perpetuate the myth that some women are somehow intrinsically, i.e. unmaterialistic [sic] here we come along with our balance sheets and income statements.”[11] Davis explores this dynamic through a number of feminist business including credit associations, book stores, publishers, and others. Efforts to create umbrella organizations that thread various feminists businesses together for economic and political gain, often met with resistance from critics inside the movement.

 

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Malcolm X, half-length portrait, seated, facing right, during press conference in offices of the National Memorial African Book Store, New York City, 1964, New York World Telegram & Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Whatever the political gains achieved by black nationalist and feminist book stores, both contributed to the critical growth of each community’s economic base. Black and feminist bookstores increased the numbers of businesses owned by women and minorities but also nurtured customers’ interest in feminism and civil rights. Each contributed to an expansion of the public sphere that included a more diverse set of voices; however, both fell victim to their success. By the 1990 and 2000s, chain stores snatched up black and feminist authors. With declining readership that eventually shuttered the physical locations of even Barnes and Noble, most black and feminist bookstores soon closed their doors, unable to compete. For feminist presses, those that persisted shed or downplayed their affiliation to the movement. Due to the focus on both black and feminist entrepreneurs, these chapters put Davis in dialogue with Weems, Cohen, Deutsch, Glickman and others.

Unlike bookstores and printing presses, head shops and organic food outlets exhibited a slightly different arc: ideologies mattered less, lifestyle mattered more. Each began as alternatives to “America’s dominant consumer culture.” In the case of head shops, many activist entrepreneurs believed consumerism to be “alienating, conformist, puritanical, and ‘plastic.’”[12] But head shops also did not operate as “ideological clearing house[s] for radical social movements” or serve as collectives or cooperatives.[13] That being said, politics did seep into the scene; anti-war activism of the late 1960s and early 1970s influenced both head shop entrepreneurs and their customers. In general, however, head shops grew out of the counterculture’s distrust of materialism, an interest in Eastern religions, and tendency toward self-exploration (chemical and otherwise).

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The modern day descendent of Davis’s 1960s head shop activist entrepreneurs; “Window of the Space Cowboy Smoke Shop, which calls itself ‘the highest head shop in the world,’ in Breckenridge, Colorado”, Carol M. Highsmith, August 8, 2015, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

When the 1980s arrived with Reagan’s War on Drugs and the efforts of parents groups like Dekalb Families in Action (see Michael Massing’s The Fix for a good composite of the anti-drug parent movement of the late 1970s and 1980s), head shops faced public criticism and legislative marginalization. Eventually, entrepreneurs allied with the marijuana legalization movement and free speech advocates. It was a narrower activism than the anti-materialism and anti-war politics of the 1960s and ‘70s, but activism nonetheless.[14]

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Photoprint used by the U.S. Treasury Department to document the increasing traffic in marijuana, 1943-1945, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What most head shop owners did not highlight in this fight was the racial inequality at the heart of the War on Drugs. Instead, they often adopted a “color blind analysis of drug laws” that failed to highlight the criminal justice systems implicit racial bias. NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) also stood guilty of such sins of omission, and Davis cynically describes how NORML found it “politically effective to celebrate marijuana and its young white users as innocent, everyday Americans instead of challenging the prevalent stereotypes of African American drug users as dangerous criminals.”[15]

 

Like head shops, natural or organic foods began without being tethered to a single ideology. Rather, the natural food movement operated as a Rorschach test—the cause you ascribed to it said much more about you than the enterprise itself. “Environmentalism, pacifism, animal rights, anarchism, and the counterculture—all contributed to natural foods’ ideological profile in the early 1970s,” argues Davis. The embrace of numerous movements rather than a single one enabled activist entrepreneurs in the industry to “recast their business as a form of political resistance against powerful corporations, environmental degradation, and even war and animal cruelty.” Still, while this gave activist entrepreneurs a broader appeal it also meant they lacked the kind of frenzied attachment to their business enjoyed by those counterparts wedded to a single cause.[16]

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A modern day non-Whole Foods natural food store, “Talal Cockar’s 2011 mural “Tierra y Libertad” fills much of a wall on the Big Hollow natural-foods store building, part of the Laramie Mural Project in downtown Laramie, Wyoming”, Carol M. Highsmith, June 6, 2015, Carol M. Highsmith Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Considering the dominance of Whole Foods over the past decade and its recent buyout, it would not be surprising if Davis’ work on organic food draws the most attention from the media and general public. The natural foods movement did not begin with Whole Foods, but rather sprang from the ideas of Japanese writer and spiritual leader George Ohsawa. In his book Zen Macrobiotics, Ohsawa advised readers to eschew sugar, canned goods, produce grown with nonorganic pesticides and fertilizers, and almost all animal products. His followers established Erewhon in the mid-1960s in Boston while promoting the macrobiotic lifestyle. Despite running afoul of the FDA, Erewhon gained its economic footing and by 1971 reported annual sales of $1.8 million. With locations in Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Toronto, it laid the groundwork for a transformation of the grocery industry.[17]

Labor practices bedeviled many natural food stores. “Some of the most successful businesses resisted efforts by employees or activists to organize unions,” writes Davis, “rejecting the idea that organized labor should play a role in securing workplace democracy.”[18] Labor difficulties aside and in terms of economic growth and presence in the American marketplace, organic foods prove the most successful of Davis’ examples. However, whether in spite or because of their success, the industry endured the criticism from a variety of constituencies including accusations of “cliquish dogmatism,” excessive prices, and “hostility toward people of color, the poor, and organized labor.”[19]

Just as feminist businesses attempted to create umbrella organizations and associations that might bind them to each other more tightly, both politically and economically, similar efforts were made among natural food producers. The formation of the Organic Merchants (OM) “counterculture trade association” sought to create a network of activist entrepreneurs as a means to address distribution problems. Many of these entrepreneurs argued that corporations would never be effective in the natural food business. Paul Hawken, the co-founder of OM, disparaged efforts by corporate America as too opaque, too focused on profits, and too dependent on what and he others viewed as corrupted advertising. “If you are in a truly meaningful business, there is no need to promote yourself other than being open, honest and communicative to your customers,” he would tell journalists. “[T]here is nothing truthful in advertising.”[20]

Cooperatives also arose in the mid-1970s as a means to increase inclusivity and democratic organization. Having lived in NYC for nearly a decade I can’t even tell you how many oddball stories about the famed Park Slope Coop I heard from friends. Now a resident in one of the nations’ most liberal suburbs, Takoma Park, I’ve witnessed Coop politics first hand, sometimes rational and thought out, sometimes not. At the very least, cooperatives raised questions about just what made for the best, most just, business model: “the cooperative model of shared ownership, the spiritually informed and consensus driven management model of companies such as Erewhon, or labor unions?”[21]

Whole Foods emerged from this activist ether. After studying earlier natural food stores like Brookline, Massachusetts’s Bread and Circus and Los Angeles’s Mrs. Gooch’s Ranch Market, John Mackey opened the first Whole Foods market in Austin, Texas. Mackey aggressively expanded the business; unlike his counterparts, Mackey sought to acquire competitors and later sold large portions of the business to venture capitalists, hence facilitating this growth. Such decisions represented a clear break with the more democratic impulses of the movement.

Later Mackey adopted a libertarian politics that eschewed organized labor and government intervention. In retelling the company’s history, Mackey conveniently neglected to mention that Whole Foods once accepted a critical loan from the government following a damaging flood to its Austin store in the 1980s. The company’s environmentalism aligned with the libertarian ideal advocating for businesses to adopt a social consciousness rather than depend on government regulation of the environment.

“[U]nlike most activist businesses, Mackey emphasized individual fulfillment at the expense of social equality and workplace democracy,” notes Davis. In Mackey’s estimation, inequality was natural, struggles for equality were manifestations of national selfishness. While Mackey outwardly embraced social causes like environmentalism, he always kept his eye on the capitalist prize: “We must make sure that we do not become so involved in social/environmental/global issues that it negatively affects our ability to serve our stakeholders,” he noted in a 1988 handbook for Whole Foods.

Davis is right to lament the dissolution of entrepreneurial activism, but at the same time, the efforts of all his subjects also helped bring their movements and the issues that animated them into the mainstream. The decline of black and feminist bookstores, and independent bookstores generally, deserves to be mourned. However, the fact that both brought black and female authors to the broader culture such that big chains began to stock them also merits some level of celebration. What was lost, perhaps, was a sense of community and the store as a space for political debate, reform, and resolution.

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Our more traditional idea of 1960s activism, [Anti-Vietnam war protest and demonstration in front of the White House in support of singer Eartha Kitt], Thomas J. O’Holloran, January 1968, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
At least in some small way, what happened to black bookstores parallels the fate of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCUs spent decades educating black America, and doing it well, only to witness declining enrollments with desegregation as African American students chose schools that had previously denied them admission due to race. At the risk of sounding simplistic, both deserved better but in capitalism we often don’t get what we deserve—rather, we get what the market dictates. Such observations hardly count as revelatory, but since From Head Shops to Whole Foods is the newest addition to the History of Capitalism series from Columbia University Press, it seems appropriate.

Relatedly, the cooption of entrepreneurial activism by companies such as Whole Foods demonstrates capitalism’s consistency regarding commodification. For example, organized labor and workers pushed the idea of “industrial democracy” during World War I as a means to break up the autocratic control of big business over their labor. After the war, employers soon adopted the same phrase and attached it to mealy-mouthed company unions that failed to deliver anything like the gains workers made during, and then lost after, the Great War. Here too, the reader encounters similar processes at work. Yet, and this remains just one testament to the complexity of Davis’ work here, if this co-option resulted in better corporate citizenship and more activist consumers, then activist entrepreneurs undoubtedly contributed something vital to American capitalism.

 

If there are aspects of the book to critique, as there are with any work, one might point to the lack of any transnational perspective. Despite the fact black nationalists and feminists circulated ideas internationally, there is no real attention to this facet of any of the movements. Secondarily, in moments, it feels as if Davis jumps from example to example and that one unifying thread for each chapter does not always emerge. These are pretty minor quibbles.

In the end, Davis book makes a valuable contribution to the study of American capitalism and consumerism. It reveals some well-worn paths in American history but in new ways, while also establishing some of the ironic origins of today’s corporate citizens.

[1] Elaine Lewinnek, “Modern Architecture, Consumer Citizenship, and the Fate of American Downtowns”, Journal of Urban History 43. (July 2017): 526.

[2] Robert E. Weems, Desegregating the Dollar: African American Consumerism in the Twentieth Century, New York University Press, 1998; Lawrence Glickman, Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America, University of Chicago Press, 2010;

[3] Meg Jacobs, Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America, Princeton University Press, 2006; Tracy Deutsch, Building a Housewife’s Paradise: Gender, Politics, and American Grocery Stores in the New Deal, University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[4] William R. Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, Vintage Books, 1993.

[5] Richard Longstreth, City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950, M.I.T. Press, 1997; Richard Longstreth, The Drive-In, the Supermarket, and the Transformation of Space in Los Angeles, M.I.T. Press, 1999; Richard Longstreth, The American Department Store Transformed, 1940-1960, Yale University Press, 2010.

[6] Gabrielle Esperdy, Modernizing Main Street: Architecture and Consumer Culture During the New Deal, University of Chicago Press, 2008; Andrew M. Shanken, 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the Home Front, University of Minnesota Press, 2010; Kathy Piess, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, Temple University Press, 1986; Susan Bension, Counter Cultures: Saleswomen, Managers, and Customers in American Department Stores, 1890 – 1940, University of Illinois Press, 1987

[7] Josh Clark Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 4, 8.

[8] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 245.

[9] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 58,94

[10] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 31.

[11] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 149.

[12] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 84.

[13] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 85.

[14] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 120.

[15] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 121.

[16] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 191.

[17] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 171.

[18] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 179.

[19] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 180.

[20] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 195.

[21] Davis, From Head Shops to Whole Foods, 203.