Greta de Jong's You Can't Eat Freedom is a tour de force of rural black southerners' lives after the passage of 1960s civil rights legislation. De Jong broadens the African American freedom struggle narrative by focusing on what happened in the plantation counties of Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana after Jim Crow signs came down and federal voter registrars arrived. She shows that the hard-fought political achievements of the period did not bring about immediate meaningful changes in the lives of working-class African Americans because they lacked economic security. The fight for first-class citizenship coincided with agricultural mechanization, and white landowners fired black sharecroppers who challenged the racial status quo. Thus, the rural black antipoverty struggles of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s were intricately connected to earlier civil rights struggles.
The first chapter of You Can't Eat Freedom provides an overview [End Page 699] of the hardships black plantation workers faced as the agricultural economy shrunk after 1950. Non-farming employment was scarce because of racial discrimination, and no safety net existed for black workers. The social welfare system in these Black Belt counties was arbitrary and punitive. People rarely received the full amount of aid they were entitled to, and civil rights activists were denied assistance outright.
In the first section, de Jong makes an important historiographical contribution to arguments about agricultural mechanization and modernization in the post–World War II period. According to de Jong, black displacement in the 1960s was not solely the inevitable outcome of workers whose labor had become expendable. Rather, it was the deliberate attempt on the part of white supremacists to foster the out-migration of a group whose population numbers posed a threat to the region's political status quo after the passage of voting rights. Leaving the South, however, was not a preferred option for many African Americans.
Each of the subsequent seven chapters focuses on ways that African Americans responded to their displacement and bleak economic situation. The determination of black residents to stay in the only area they had ever known led to a variety of initiatives. In 1966, evicted sharecroppers took over an abandoned Air Force base in Mississippi in an attempt to pressure federal officials to act. They also championed the War on Poverty, which allowed the nation's poorest citizens to create solutions to local problems using federal funds. White state and county officials weakened the reach and success of such programs because they threatened their undemocratic political dominance.
One of the rural black poor's most innovative and understudied responses to labor displacement was the creation of cooperatives. De Jong shows that community-owned businesses insulated their owners from economic exploitation, fostered economic independence, and undergirded the ongoing freedom movement. Those who had been evicted from plantations or lost their jobs because of their political work now had opportunities for employment outside of the local [End Page 700] white power structure. There were psychological benefits, too. Participation in black cooperatives "increased black farmers' confidence in their own abilities and gave them the freedom to make their own decisions" (p. 91). In some cases, such as that of the Southwest Alabama Farmer Cooperative Association, black southerners received funding and technical support from federal government agencies. Like the antipoverty programs, however, the cooperatives faced stiff opposition from white supremacists and wavering federal support.
By the 1970s, the nation's political climate became antagonistic toward federal intervention in the economy. Beginning with the Nixon administration, the federal government retreated from its commitment to empowering the poor and decentralized antipoverty programs. De Jong convincingly asserts that the consequences of blind faith in market forces reverberated not just in the rural South but, also, throughout the nation.
You Can't Eat Freedom is a must read for scholars interested in southern history, civil rights history, or poor people's movements. De Jong problematizes the scholarly and media "framing" of the civil rights movement. Long...