Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book is "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security: From World War II to the War on Terrorism," published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.
(CNN) -- In response to Arizona's law cracking down on illegal immigration, pro-immigration and Hispanic organizations have launched a national protest campaign.
Protests took place in more than 90 cities on Saturday to remind politicians of the size of the immigrant community. Jorge-Mario Cabrera from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, California, told reporters: "If Republicans and Democrats do not take care of this albatross around our necks, this will in fact be the undoing of many, many years of civil rights struggle in this country." In his city, more than 60,000 people turned out for a downtown rally.
While Republicans and Democrats have been panicking about the backlash they could face if they supported liberalized immigration policies, it is becoming clear that they didn't pay enough attention to what the costs of these positions could be for their party and the states they represent.
Pro-immigration groups have started a national boycott against Arizona. The boycott promises to be substantial in scale and scope. San Francisco, California, Mayor Gavin Newsom has announced that he will ban city employees from traveling to the state. Los Angeles officials are considering doing the same. There is growing pressure on Major League Baseball to pull next year's all-star game out of Phoenix if the law is not changed. In other words, Arizona has a potentially big economic problem on its hands.
The economic boycott has been a powerful tool in the struggle for social rights. During the civil rights era, African-American activists used boycotts to create pressure for social change and to draw national attention to their cause.
In 1955, African-Americans in Alabama launched a boycott of the bus system in Montgomery after local civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white rider. Given that African-Americans constituted a large part of the ridership, the boycott hurt the city's revenue base. As people found alternative ways to get to work and school, the boycott drew national attention.
Northerners expressed support for the boycott and gave donations. Several national leaders emerged, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, who would remain at the forefront of the struggle through the 1960s. The boycott ended in 1956 when the Supreme Court declared that the segregated transit system was unconstitutional.
The boycott was also central in the fight for labor justice and union rights. In 1965, the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, launched a national boycott against grapes. The five-year boycott, called "la huelga," placed immense pressure on California grape growers to recognize the union. The boycott drew national attention to the plight of unorganized immigrant workers in low-paying and dangerous jobs.
"Go to the public," Chavez told workers, "and tell them what it is that we need, and get them to help us. ..." The union floated balloons in Toronto, Ontario, supermarkets that said "Boycott Grapes" and organized postcard writing campaigns to A &P grocery offices in major cities.
Chavez once said the boycott "gets into people's hearts and minds, like writing a good poem or book -- if you keep at it, it will come." Chavez was right. On July 29, 1970, 26 grape growers in California signed contracts recognizing the union.
Sometimes boycotts can temporarily stave off action. After the House passed a stringent anti-immigration measure in 2005, immigrants conducted a one-day boycott in schools and businesses to demonstrate their role in the economy. The boycott helped persuade the Senate to reject the House measure and propose a more liberal alternative, although that never passed.
Not every boycott works. But there is a strong track record.
The most effective boycotts find strategic and charismatic leaders to articulate the goals and aspirations of its supporters. They are able to focus national attention on the contributions to society of the people who are the target of certain social practices or legislation. They are also able to demonstrate enough economic muscle so that their opponents, and those who are not particularly invested on either side of the issue, see a clear economic cost to the continuation of the status quo.
The boycott has offered a form of nonviolent civil protest that has an immense economic bite. Within Arizona, there are already signs that politicians are rethinking what they have done. Gov. Jan Brewer has signed revisions to the law. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, no liberal, has said he has "concerns with portions of the law passed in Arizona, and believe[s] it would not be the right direction for Texas."
What we are seeing are the first rumblings of a potential movement in favor of immigrant rights. For many years prominent Republicans, including President George W. Bush, have realized that focusing on immigration restriction could be politically costly to the GOP. Many Democrats express the same reservations as Senate Democrats adopt a more hard-line stand against immigrants in their new proposed legislation.
Hispanics, the fastest-growing voting bloc in the United States, could soon start to show just how much economic and political muscle they have.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian E. Zelizer.