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The New Negro Alliance was organized in 1933 by three young men, writer/activist John Aubrey Davis, lawyer Belford V. Lawson, Jr., and recent college graduate M. Franklin Thorne, who were outraged that white-run businesses in the middle of black neighborhoods refused to hire black workers. The Alliance instituted then-radical "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaigns, organizing boycotts and pickets of white-owned businesses, or threatening to do so.

These campaigns took place during the Great Depression, when businesses could not afford to lose sales, so they often gave in quickly. Some businesses fought back, however, arguing that the NNA had no right to picket in protest of their hiring practices if NNA pickets didn't work there. Two businesses arranged for an injunction to stop the picketing. NNA lawyers, including Belford Lawson, Thurgood Marshall, William Hastie, James M. Nabrit, Jr., and others, fought back — all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1938 the Supreme Court declared the Alliance had the legal right to picket a business regardless of whether the pickets worked there. This case, New Negro Alliance v Sanitary Grocery Store, became a landmark in the struggle by African Americans against discriminatory hiring practices, and Don't Buy Where You Can't Work groups multiplied throughout the nation. The NNA estimated that by 1940, one year before it disbanded, the group had secured an estimated 5,106 jobs in more than 50 businesses (including chain stores) around the city.

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