Jesse Jackson's Civil Rights Signature

Operation Breadbasket: How a 1966 economic boycott plan became Jesse Jackson's signature program

Mabinty Quarshie

On Feb. 11, 1966, around 300 hundred pastors gathered in the fellowship hall of Jubilee CME Temple in Chicago. Martin Luther King Jr. had invited church leaders to the meeting to discuss an economic boycott program King wanted to launch in the city. 

Black Americans in Chicago could use their buying power to demand fairness from local companies, King explained to the group. He encouraged one of them to lead the program. They balked.

"No, no, you lead it, Dr. King!" they responded. Astonished, King dropped the matter. Later, he drafted one of his young lieutenants, a Chicago Theological Seminary student named Jesse Jackson, to lead the initiative.

The Chicago boycott was conducted under the banner of Operation Breadbasket, which pressured local businesses to hire more Black employees and invest in Black communities. And it gave Jackson a base from which he would launch a lifelong national profile that included runs for president in 1984 and 1988. 

Operation Breadbasket would morph in 1971 into Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity), which has since been been folded into Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition. But the program began with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta in 1962 before being taken to other cities across the USA and ultimately becoming best known through Chicago. 

"Operation Breadbasket gave him (Jesse Jackson) an institutional platform. He of course, because of his fame and charisma, that helped to expand Operation Breadbasket," said Jim Ralph, a professor of American history and culture at Middlebury College. "But I think having an institutional base was quite important, ultimately, in his growing prominence."

Where economics meets civil rights

After the civil rights campaign in Selma, Alabama, which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965, King and his associates took the movement north. The rebellion in the Watts section of Los Angeles, just days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the act, convinced King that they should do more to address the conditions of Black people in major Northern cities.

..."We took Operation Breadbasket, a simple idea, and put together an economic plan for America," Jackson told USA TODAY. "Include us at every level: where decisions are made; employ us at the highest jobs to entry-level; contract with African American companies for goods and services; and philanthropy."

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