Sears: Capitalism vs. Jim Crow

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Image via Wikipedia.
As yesteryear's Amazon files for bankruptcy, Jason Kottke posts on the ways the Sears catalog helped undermine bigotry and Jim Crow laws. This happened despite the fact that the company was hardly -- as evidenced by some of its catalog offerings -- on the forefront of the fight for racial equality. Kottke quotes from the blog Bitter Southerner regarding a policy that helped many poorly educated blacks improve their standard of living:
One of [Sears historian Jerry] Hancock's discoveries was Sears' response to the needs of a rural South in which literacy was rare. For someone who could neither read nor write, placing orders and following written protocols were problematic. Richard Sears responded with a policy that his company would fill any order it received, no matter what the medium or format. So, country folks who were once too daunted to send requests to other purveyors could write in on a scrap of paper, asking humbly for a pair of overalls, size large. And even if it was written in broken English or nearly illegible, the overalls would be shipped.
Other parts of this post note how the catalog helped break the power of the shopkeepers in the sharecropping system, and helped along the development of musical styles, such as the blues.

The piece reminds me in an important way of the story of the end of commercial segregation in Houston, Texas (aka, The Strange Demise of Jim Crow). The fact is that treating a customer poorly or turning one away on the basis of race is detrimental to one's own best interest. This alone did not end the moral outrage that is racism, or the political scourge of JIm Crow, but it did (a) provide one way around some of the problems for blacks, and (b) demonstrate at least to some whites on some level that this foolishness was also harmful to themselves. It is indeed fortunate that, despite the high degree of repression in the Jim Crow South, there was enough freedom for Sears to send its catalog everywhere and sell its goods to everyone.

-- CAV

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