LIFE FOR the black citizens of Port Gibson, Miss., in 1966 was no bed of roses. Unemployment, inadequate housing, intimidation of voters were the order of the day. In an effort to persuade the county government and the local white establishment that conditions should be improved, a meeting was held in March of that year in the First Baptist Church at which several hundred black people voted to institute a boycott of white merchants in the town. Pickets, some as young as 6 or 7, walked in front of white-owned businesses, and "watchers" were sent out to take the names of blacks who continued to patronize these businesses. The names of those violating the boycott were published in a mimeographed newspaper and read out at the regular meetings of the Claiborne County NAACP. A few acts of violence against non-boycotters occurred. It was neither encouraged nor condoned by the organizers of the boycott. There were no serious injuries.
The economic sanctions hurt. By 1972, the l7 white merchants who had been targeted estimated that they had lost almost a million dollars in business, and they decided to sue. The NAACP, an organization called Mississippi Action for Progress, which ran the local Head Start program, and 146 individuals were named defendants. The Mississippi trial court, hearing the case without a jury, found that they had conspired to violate the antitrust laws, to organize a secondary boycott and to "maliciously interfere with the plaintiffs' businesses." The defendants were ordered to pay a fine of $1,250,600, an amount that would have bankrupted the NAACP, not to mention each of the individual black citizens of Port Gibson, who were equally liable.
In its last decision of the current term, a unanimous Supreme Court overturned the Mississippi court ruling and found that the activity of the boycotters was protected by the First Amendment. The justices strongly reaffirmed the rights of citizens to use speech, assembly, association and petition to bring about social and economic change. The violence that did occur is not protected behavior, of course, and those who beat or intimidated others can be prosecuted criminally or sued for civil damages. But, the court held, the liability does not extend to the organizers of the boycott, whose aim was peaceful protest.
There is a doubly happy ending to this story for the NAACP. When it appeared that the damages awarded by the Mississippi court would impoverish the civil rights organization, a national fund-raising drive was undertaken. The money raised--more than $1.6 million--can now be directed to other projects using the kind of nonviolent political persuasion that has characterized the NAACP's efforts since its founding. These projects can proceed with solid financial backing and with the assurance that the Constitution protects peaceful protest.