In the mid-1960s, black activists and their allies won two key victories in their long fight for freedom. The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed racial segregation in public accommodations, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act ended almost a century of efforts by whites to disfranchise black voters. Despite these triumphs, many objectives of the long Civil Rights movement remained unfulfilled, most notably any significant economic reforms to assist African Americans, who had endured centuries of enslavement as well as a century of second-class citizenship.
In You Can’t Eat Freedom, Greta de Jong looks at the continuing fight for economic justice in the cotton plantation districts of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi in the period after the momentous Civil Rights victories of the mid-1960s. On the one hand, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought political empowerment (albeit not immediately) to blacks in a region where they comprised a majority of the population. At the same time, blacks in this area faced an economic crisis by the mid-1960s. The final phase of an agricultural revolution, [End Page 277] which began in the 1940s, spurred by mechanization, economically displaced millions of agricultural laborers throughout the Deep South, the vast majority of them African Americans.
Whites in these cotton districts typically welcomed the economic changes as a way to rid their region of black workers no longer needed to sustain economic prosperity. Whites believed that an out-migration of superfluous black labor would also fortuitously limit the impact of black enfranchisement by eliminating black voting majorities in the plantation districts. The attitude of whites in these areas as the cotton plantation economy collapsed revealed the true sentiment whites held for their black neighbors. They were only valued as laborers, and once that workforce was no longer needed, they were seen as expendable. These attitudes echoed beliefs that dated back to the nineteenth century, when whites who could imagine an end to slavery embraced colonization and Back-to-Africa schemes as a way to remove African Americans from their midst.
As De Jong details, blacks resisted the notion that they should flee their homes. Some African Americans did continue to leave the Deep South throughout the twentieth century. Others, however, sought to use their new political clout to promote policies that would secure for African American residents a full measure of economic justice. They recognized that “political liberties unmoored from economic security were mere shadows of freedom” (p. 221). Initially, black activists worked with the federal War on Poverty programs, which provided services and jobs to those in black communities adversely affected by the decline of agricultural jobs and also empowered black citizens through the creation of Community Action Programs to shape and administer the federal poverty plans. The War on Poverty directly challenged white power, and as a result, white southerners frequently attacked the poverty programs as corrupt and wasteful.
Early on, a number of black leaders recognized different kinds of limitations inherent in the federal poverty programs, especially the typically insufficient funding provided to solve massive economic problems. While still utilizing whatever federal help continued to exist, De Jong shows how black activists also sought to address economic [End Page 278] problems by applying a tried-and-true strategy of the black community: self-help. Throughout the cotton plantation districts of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, low-income citizens organized cooperatives to develop “projects that offered possibilities for economic independence and the ability to control their own affairs” (p. 88). In 1967, members from twenty of these cooperatives formed the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC), with the goal of creating “a comprehensive rural development plan to revitalize the plantation regions and put displaced workers on a path toward economic self-sufficiency” (p. 141). De Jong points out both the achievements and some of the internal problems of the cooperatives, but she also recognizes that local whites “mobilized their considerable economic and political power against the cooperative movement” (p. 102...