In 1962 the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) launched Operation Breadbasket in Atlanta. According to King, “The fundamental premise of Breadbasket is a simple one. Negroes need not patronize a business which denies them jobs, or advancement [or] plain courtesy” (King, 11 July 1967). “Many retail businesses and consumer-goods industries,” King explained, “deplete the ghetto by selling to Negroes without returning to the community any of the profits through fair hiring practices” (King, January 1967).
Operation Breadbasket was modeled after a selective patronage program developed by Leon Sullivan in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. King brought Sullivan to Atlanta in October 1962 to meet with local ministers about replicating the program. Breadbasket used the persuasive power of black ministers and the organizing strength of the churches to create economic opportunities in black communities. The group obtained employment statistics for industries selling their products in black communities and, if these statistics demonstrated that blacks were underemployed or restricted to menial positions, ministers from Operation Breadbasket asked the company to “negotiate a more equitable employment practice” (King, January 1967). If the company refused, clergy encouraged their parishioners to boycott selected products and picket businesses selling those products. By 1967 Atlanta’s Breadbasket had negotiated jobs bringing a total of $25 million a year in new income to the black community.
Operation Breadbasket expanded to Chicago in 1966 as part of SCLC’s Chicago Campaign. King called it SCLC’s “most spectacularly successful program” in Chicago (King, January 1967). Under the leadership of Chicago Theological Seminary student Jesse Jackson, Breadbasket targeted five businesses in the dairy industry. While three companies negotiated to add black jobs immediately, two complied only after boycotts. Chicago Breadbasket went on to target Pepsi and Coca-Cola bottlers, and then supermarket chains, winning 2,000 new jobs worth $15 million a year in new income to the black community in the first 15 months of its operation. Going beyond jobs and patronage for black-owned businesses, Chicago-based Operation Breadbasket became a cultural event, focused around weekly Saturday workshops, which drew thousands to hear Jackson preach in person and on the radio.
Jackson became the national director of Operation Breadbasket’s programs in 1967. After King’s assassination in 1968, Jackson continued to lead the program; however, tensions emerged between Jackson and SCLC’s new leader, Ralph Abernathy, over fundraising and the location of Breadbasket’s national headquarters. Abernathy wanted Jackson to move Breadbasket from Chicago to Atlanta in early 1971, but Jackson refused and resigned from SCLC in December. A week later he launched his own economic empowerment organization called Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity). Chicago’s Breadbasket continued through the next year, experiencing several leadership changes before its eventual demise.