Illinois professor examines the overlooked role of food in civil rights struggle

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Food was used as both a weapon and a tool of resistance in the Mississippi Delta during the Civil Rights Movement.

Bobby J. Smith II, an African American studies professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, looked at how the Civil Rights Movement expanded to include struggles around food in his book “Food Power Politics: The Food Story of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement.” The book is the inaugural title in the Black Food Justice series by the University of North Carolina Press.

Smith wrote about how white economic and political actors turned access to food into a weapon against poor, rural Black communities, and how those communities in turn created their own local food economy. The story provides historical context for today’s struggles around issues of food security, food access, food justice and what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls “food deserts,” he said.

The book also talks about an aspect of the Civil Rights Movement that has been overlooked. Lunch counter protests and demonstrations over voting rights, education and access to public accommodations are well-known. But poor, rural residents were resisting oppression in their everyday lives through food, Smith said.

“Food is not just something on our plate or in the grocery store. There is power in the way food is moved throughout the world,” he said.

Smith’s research focused on the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, comprising 18 counties in an agricultural region in the western part of the state. This part of rural Mississippi is one of the poorest places in the state, which is the most food insecure state in the nation, as well as one of the unhealthiest, with high rates of diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, Smith said. Additionally, Mississippi is both the birthplace of organized white supremacy and the site of robust Black activism, he said.

The use of food as a weapon against Black people began with slavery, when plantation masters withheld food to starve slaves into compliance, Smith said. Later, sharecroppers could only get food through the plantation commissary or federal food programs when they were prohibited from growing it themselves. More recently, food was weaponized through federal food policies and programs, he said.

Smith wrote about the 1962-63 Greenwood Food Blockade, when the all-white board of supervisors in the Delta county of Leflore eliminated its participation in the federal surplus commodities program, which provided free food to poor communities, in response to a voter registration campaign.

“It was taken away as a form of voter suppression. Food was used as a political weapon,” Smith said.

In response, activists organized a massive, multistate food network to provide food to the people who had depended on the surplus commodities program. They were able to eventually get the federal program reinstated, and the blockade “ended up being the catalyst for one of the most successful voter registration efforts in the state of Mississippi and across the South,” Smith said.

Food also was used as an economic weapon through the federal food stamp program. White grocery store owners influenced the passage of the food stamp program because residents who were getting free food through the commodities program were not shopping at grocery stores. The grocers got a provision written into the program barring counties who offered food stamps from also offering the commodities program, Smith said.

“They were attempting to shift how poor people accessed food. It was not about feeding the poor. It was about making money,” he said.

Grocery store owners could extend credit for food stamps, further indebting the poor who were using them, and they regulated what items could be purchased with food stamps and raised the prices of those items, Smith said.

Black residents created a local food economy – the North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative – that included farms, 12 cooperative grocery stores and a transportation system. The cooperative provided work as well. At the time, the plantation economy was collapsing as machines replaced human labor, and many people didn’t have jobs, Smith said.

“The food system and local food economy was not only feeding them; it was also providing economic security. It provided the blueprint for the food justice movement today,” he said.

Smith used the term “emancipatory food power” for such efforts to shift who controls when, where and how people can access food.

In his last chapter, Smith wrote about a contemporary food justice movement by rural Black youth, the North Bolivar County Good Food Revolution, formed in the same location as the farm cooperative 50 years earlier. The new movement builds on the past in looking at inequities in food access and pays particular attention to access to nutritious food as an intervention to reduce diet-related illnesses in the region, Smith said. The organization includes a farm, a mobile produce market and a cooking demonstration program that shows how to prepare food in healthful ways.

“Inequality still exists but they frame it differently. It’s not just about trying to survive. Now they are calling into question the structures that shape the inequalities. What are the structures in place that are creating conditions why people are hungry?” Smith said. “I want us to reframe the conversation about food.”

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