You Can't Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement

You Can't Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement

You Can't Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement

You Can't Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement

Synopsis

Two revolutions roiled the rural South after the mid-1960s: the political revolution wrought by the passage of civil rights legislation, and the ongoing economic revolution brought about by increasing agricultural mechanization. Political empowerment for black southerners coincided with the transformation of southern agriculture and the displacement of thousands of former sharecroppers from the land. Focusing on the plantation regions of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, Greta de Jong analyzes how social justice activists responded to mass unemployment by lobbying political leaders, initiating antipoverty projects, and forming cooperative enterprises that fostered economic and political autonomy, efforts that encountered strong opposition from free market proponents who opposed government action to solve the crisis.



Making clear the relationship between the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty, this history of rural organizing shows how responses to labor displacement in the South shaped the experiences of other Americans who were affected by mass layoffs in the late twentieth century, shedding light on a debate that continues to reverberate today.

Excerpt

In her study of the transition from slavery to free labor in nineteenth- century Maryland, Barbara Fields refers to freedom as a “moving target” that was constantly being redefined in contests over economic and political rights that freedpeople attempted to assert and planters sought to deny. At that time, the meaning of freedom for the nation’s working class was being transformed as the rise of industrial capitalism pushed the status of selfreliant property owner out of reach for large numbers of wage earners. Historically, Americans had considered property ownership essential to the enjoyment of liberty and the basis of citizenship in a democratic republic, but when freedpeople and their allies suggested that real freedom required a redistribution of land and resources in the South to ensure economic independence for former slaves, political leaders balked. They believed the future lay in large- scale agriculture, not small farms. If freedpeople and poor white southerners received land that allowed them to live and work on their own terms, who would be left to labor on the plantations, and what would stop propertyless northerners from demanding similar reforms?

By the late nineteenth century, the debate was settled in favor of a more restricted definition of freedom that granted legal and political rights to freedpeople but left most of them dependent on white landowners for employment. Former slaves were not to become independent small farmers but instead joined white workers as free laborers, selling themselves in the marketplace for the best price they could find. Even those limited gains disappeared after white supremacists regained control of the state governments in the South and the federal government withdrew its presence from the region, leaving black people unprotected against the onslaught of disfranchisement and segregation legislation passed in the 1880s and 1890s. The Jim Crow laws served to limit workers’ bargaining power and maintain an ample supply of labor for plantation owners by denying black people access to education, economic opportunities, and the legal system. Most African Americans ended up as sharecroppers, working land owned by white people in return for a portion of the proceeds from the crops they grew each year. Paid only once . . .

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