Can America's blacks accomplish with a national boycott what they have so far not been able to achieve with the Ballot? The Rev. Jesse Jackson and other black leaders are trying to mount an economic boycott to force not just politicians, but the private economic establishment in the United States to do something about the alarming rate of black unemployment.
They have not by any means given up on political clout in this presidential election year. With both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan eager to court the 10 million registered black voters in the United States, many black leaders have made it clear their support will go to whichever candidate has the most to offer on the jobs front.
But Mr. Jackson, founder and president of PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), says what he terms "our second weapon" -- $125 million in black consumer spending each year -- may be more effective than the ballot in this particular battle.
JAckson was one of more than 250 black political, business, and community leaders who met Aug. 21-22 in Gary, Ind. The meeting set up a "national economic withdrawal council," headed by a Baptist minister, the Rev. B. W. Smith of Buffalo, N.Y.
In October, says Jackson, the council will issue a list of major national companies whose products will be targeted for boycott.
The boycott is intended to force major firms:
* To hire and promote more blacks.
* To buy more black goods and services. This is meant to include stocking black-produced goods on store shelves, using black-owned advertising agencies and building contractors, and advertising in or on black-owned communications media.
* To give blacks policymaking power, with representation on company boards.
* To support black education with research grants and funding for professorships at black colleges.
This approach was used successfully by PUSH in the 1971-73 period. It led to "covenants" with major firms such as Avon and Quaker Oats. The program was shelved following the 1973 recession, and PUSH began putting more emphasis on political action.
The Gary conferees called for a study of 25 major market areas where black dollars are most important. The "national economic withdrawal council" is surveying complaints from consumers to single out chief corporate offenders against black interests.
One of the first subjects of scrutiny is the automobile industry.In an interview at PUSH headquarters in south Chicago, JAckson said that black-owned dealerships have been the hardest-hit by the auto industry setbacks, just as black workers have been the first ones laid off from auto assembly lines. The result, he said, is that "last year, 39 of the top 100 black businesses were auto dealerships, and now it's down to 8."
The answer, he explained, is to give blacks more control over their own money. On one level, this means using boycotts to force companies into using the money they get from black consumers to benefit blacks. On a second level, JAckson is determined to force banks, insurance companies, and unions to invest in black communities because a portion of their money comes from there.
In Operation PUSH's home base of Chicago -- where teachers, policemen, firemen, and other city employees have more than $2 billion in pension funds -- Jackson said PUSH research repeatedly finds pension funds with "not one dime in black banks or in black insurance companies."
He wants black teachers and firemen to go to court to force new investment policies. He says that in the case of Chicago pension funds, "at least 30 percent, or $600 million, ought to be in black banks and black insurance companies."