- You Can’t Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement by Greta de Jong
Greta de Jong
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016
320 pp., $34.95 (cloth); $19.99 (e-book)
In You Can’t Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement, Greta de Jong offers a dynamic analysis of African American–led social justice movements in the post-1960s plantation counties of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. She shows how civil rights legislation cannot be understood apart from the economic transformations that took place in the same decades. Farm employment in the cotton counties declined precipitously after 1940, yet black workers had no access to industrial employment or the benefits associated with it. “Black people’s economic dependence severely limited their political independence,” she writes, “and civil rights leaders understood that raising black Southerners’ economic status was a prerequisite to ensuring the other rights they had fought for in the 1960s” (3). With a focus on the impact and implementation of civil rights and antipoverty legislation, de Jong “examines the ideological debates and political struggles” that shaped the black freedom struggle and the opposition to it in the plantation South (4).
Displacement of black workers is often the backdrop to histories of the 1960s South. Yet, as de Jong argues, labor displacement is fundamental to understanding economic and social policies in the civil rights era. With mechanization and the transition away from cotton to other crops and livestock, white planters no longer needed the labor of black people, on whom they had relied for centuries. Rather than implement policies that would help workers transition to industrial work, they used labor displacement to undermine the black freedom struggle and to force migration. Their decisions were not based on a “timeless racial tradition” but were a “concerted effort, necessitated by new circumstances” in the twentieth century (11). White planters promoted policies in order to encourage out migration—such as blocking industrial development that would have created new jobs or denying African Americans access to job training—yet claimed that migration was a natural progression in the free market, guided by laws of supply and demand. Black workers responded to displacement by calling for federal intervention, improvements in social services, and economic development initiatives.
De Jong adds to a growing body of scholarship that shows how black people in the South used antipoverty programs to extend the promises of the civil rights movement. Susan Youngblood Ashmore, Kent Germany, Annelise Orleck, Crystal Sanders, and others have shown how antipoverty programs funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) became important vehicles for movement building in black communities. De Jong’s work brings a new perspective by showing how antipoverty programs gave many displaced workers a reason to stay in the region and, often, a job and income. And because black people controlled them, the programs also threatened “long-standing race and class hierarchies” (63). Even as antipoverty programs injected the economy with cash, [End Page 117] created jobs, and provided much needed services, southern white political leaders spear-headed relentless campaigns to undermine them. Ultimately, the federal government’s unwillingness to protect programs that held promise for black people cast doubt on its “reliability as an ally in poor people’s struggles for justice” (86).
With declining federal support, activists put their energy toward developing a cooperative movement that would foster black autonomy and economic independence, the focus of the second half of the book. Cooperative enterprises encompassed a wide range of activities, from sewing, woodworking, and candy collectives to quilting bees and farmer cooperatives. They were especially important in the plantation counties, where workers often lost or risked losing jobs because white planters opposed their activism. And over the long term, cooperatives offered an alternative economic model that was more democratic, fostered political participation, and helped black people garner fairer prices for the goods that they produced.
The cooperative movement culminated in the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC), founded in 1967 with OEO and Ford Foundation funding and made up of a coalition of...