Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

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

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

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

Article excerpt

You Can't Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement. By Greta de Jong. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. Pp. xii, 305. Acknowledgments, maps, illustrations, tables, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95.)

"The Negro has become an unwanted commodity in the Delta," stated a 1968 NAACP report on poverty in rural Mississippi. "Mules can be disposed of humanely. Negroes can't. They are leftto rot and starve and die, and no officials within the state seem to care" (p. 33). While the civil rights movement delivered basic citizenship rights to African Americans, mechanization was driving poor black southerners out of farm jobs. Greta de Jong's You Can't Eat Freedom examines the political initiatives and debates that this displacement prompted. Focusing on the plantation counties of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, this fine monograph reinforces the truth that black political freedom meant little when not accompanied by economic justice.

Wealthy white landowners had long relied on plentiful black labor, but, by the mid-1960s, the lack of jobs was intensifying the black migration to the North. State and local political officials hastened this exodus. While assigning responsibility to natural market forces, they declined substantial amounts of federal aid to help the poor. Civil rights advocates forced the federal government to respond, as evidenced by the January 1966 occupation of Mississippi's shuttered Greenville Air Force Base. They insisted that poor blacks wanted work, not government handouts. Black southerners embraced War on Poverty projects, such as the Tufts-Delta Health Center in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, which both created jobs and provided essential services. The federal government also supported institutions, such as the Southwest Alabama Farmers Cooperative Association, that bought supplies and marketed goods collectively, with a broader agenda of improving the lives of the rural poor.

White southern officials lobbied successfully to weaken federal anti-poverty initiatives. While painting the programs as mismanaged and wasteful, they understood that black economic independence eroded their strangleholds on power. De Jong illustrates how their strategies anticipated the political trends of the 1970s. "A shared interest in limiting the federal government's influence in their lives and communities drew segregationists together with conservative business leaders concerned for the future of free enterprise," she writes. …

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