- You Can’t Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement by Greta de Jong
The pivotal battles of the civil rights movement in the South took place in the midst of dramatic transformation in the region’s economy. Beginning with New Deal-era policies and programs that incentivized mechanization of southern agriculture, the vast armies of black plantation workers whose cheap labor had generated much of the region’s wealth and whose physical containment and political immobilization formed the basis of Jim Crow suddenly became superfluous and, in the wake of the civil rights revolution, politically empowered. Within the span of a single generation, black workers in the rural South went from being essential to disposable, from highly exploited labor to, as historian Greta de Jong puts it in the opening pages of this masterful book, “workers whose labor was no longer needed—and who could now vote” (4).
Focusing on the Black Belt counties of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, de Jong traces the struggle for economic justice from the collapse of sharecropping through the civil rights movement to the present. De Jong focuses on the implementation, conservative counter-mobilization, and ambiguous legacy of the War on Poverty. Initially, the Office of Economic Opportunity played a critical role in providing rural blacks a means of bypassing racist local officials and securing direct access to money and resources. De Jong details such successes as the Tufts-Delta Health Center in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a health center and outpatient clinic founded in 1967 and dedicated to addressing the root causes of disease and illness in the deeply impoverished black communities of the Mississippi Delta.
For rural blacks, securing access to federal dollars was not an end in itself, but instead understood as a means for achieving political and economic autonomy. By the mid 1960s, de Jong shows, a low-income cooperative movement had taken hold in the rural South. These collectively owned and [End Page 535] democratically administered farms and small businesses constituted, as she put it, a “declar[ation] [of] economic independence” and became “testing grounds for innovative solutions to labor displacement in the rural South” (89). Formed in 1967 as an umbrella organization, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives worked to promote black-run cooperative enterprises through training, lobbying, and soliciting of support from government agencies and private foundations. De Jong situates the FCS alongside the era’s other, more heralded, civil rights organizations, all of which adopted a similar organizational structure as well as a shared interest, especially among its local chapters in the rural South, in promoting black economic development.
Because it “undermined the tight control that white landowners and business leaders had maintained over their communities” (63), opponents waged a ruthless campaign aimed at dampening public support for the War on Poverty. Almost from its inception, the FSC struggled to overcome local white opposition and sabotage as well as indifference bordering on outright hostility from the federal government beginning under the Nixon administration. As federal funding dwindled, the FSC increasingly relied on private foundations for support to carry out its programs and initiatives. Here, they were forced to contend with paternalistic white liberals whose second-guessing and inadequate funding of projects often did more to demoralize than empower its members.
Nevertheless, the FSC and affiliated organizations such as the Emergency Land Fund scored some notable achievements during the 1970s. The ELF, for example, saved thousands of acres of black-owned land from loss to tax delinquency and the machinations of unscrupulous developers. The FSC ensured that major redevelopment projects such as the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Project adhered to federal affirmative action guidelines in hiring practices. It did so even as the U.S. Attorney’s office in Northern Alabama worked to destroy the organization, instigating an FBI investigation into the organization’s activities beginning in 1979. While the FSC was ultimately cleared of any wrong-doing, the prolonged proceedings inflicted severe damage to the organization’s reputation...