Other than the American civil rights movement, few twentieth-century political movements have galvanized black communities into action like the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaigns. Initiated during the Depression era in mostly northern cities, these campaigns sought to boycott white stores in black communities that refused to hire black employees. The "Don't Buy" movement used mass protest and direct action tactics such as economic boycotts and picketing as potent political weapons. The reticence of traditional civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League to use direct action tactics created frustration in many black communities. Thus the "Don't Buy" campaigns represented the emergence of a new form of militant black activism which yielded faster results and, in some instances, united diverse segments in black communities.
African Americans living in segregated communities resented the presence of white-owned stores in their midst that refused to employ blacks or employed them only in menial positions. Moreover, without laws barring racial discrimination in private industry, such practices continued unabated. Hence, the "Don't Buy" pickets and boycotts became viable weapons that forced white-owned stores in black communities to hire blacks in skilled and white-collar positions. As these campaigns gained in popularity during the Depression, they spread to more than thirty cities across the country, becoming one of the first black direct action movements of that era.
The earliest "Don't Buy" boycott appeared in Chicago in the late twenties. Its target was a small chain of grocery stores in Chicago's black ghetto that refused to employ African Americans. Referred to as "Spend Your Money Where You Can Work," this first campaign sparked a larger boycott against Woolworth stores located in Chicago's "Black Belt" that also resisted hiring black employees. An aggressive black newspaper, the Chicago Whip, published fiery editorials endorsing the campaign. News of Chicago's success sparked similar campaigns across the country, particularly in New York between 1932 and 1941. Influenced by Chicago's example, blacks in Brooklyn and Harlem initiated "Don't Buy" campaigns against various white stores. The charismatic black minister Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., whose aggressive leadership helped place numerous blacks in Harlem in hundreds of white-collar jobs, enhanced the success of the New York campaigns.
The Depression era "Don't Buy" campaigns sought to improve employment opportunities for black Americans at a time when few weapons existed for blacks to use against racial discrimination. These campaigns clearly paved the way for future collective movements, such as A. Philip Randolph's 1941 March On Washington Movement, and ultimately the modern civil rights movement. The victories of later black protests could not have been won without the foundation laid by these earlier efforts. Thus, the "Don't Buy" campaigns are an important link in the historical chain of black activism and a crucial episode in the prehistory of the modern civil rights movement.