At the height of the American civil rights movement, just one year after Pres. Lyndon Baines Johnson declared his “unconditional war on poverty” and three months before the passing of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, US Rep. Jamie Whitten of Mississippi delivered a speech at the Thirteenth Annual Meeting of the Delta Council in May 1965. Angered by the intensification of voting rights activism and the looming poverty program in Mississippi, Whitten called attention to the power of the Delta Council, which controlled the region’s development projects and initiatives, to protect the state’s white supremacist system from “militant agitators.” He proclaimed to the group and other guests that, in his opinion, the struggle to attain voting rights for Blacks was “merely a front for a massive takeover by militant agitators” to obtain power “to control industry, agriculture, and even labor.” He encouraged the all-white council, who at the time had over three thousand members, to “continue to show restraint and respect for the law in the hope that, as it becomes clear to the rest of the country that the South is only a beachhead to these radical leaders for a take-over nation, the laws will be changed.”1
Whitten’s speech echoed the beliefs of those who held the most power in his district: the state’s emblematic white supremacist groups—the community-based White Citizens’ Council and the Mississippi legislature-sanctioned State Sovereignty Commission in particular—claimed that the rise of voting rights activism threatened the social, economic, and political lives of the white planter and middle classes in the Mississippi Delta. According to Whitten, this uproar in support for voting rights was a critical component of the larger civil rights agenda initiated by the Brown decision of 1954, which he described as a “downhill road to integration, amalgamation, and ruin.”2 Thus, to ensure that the “militant agitators” did not take control of “industry, agriculture, and even labor,” a group of three powerful Mississippi congressmen—Jamie Whitten, Sen. John Stennis, and Sen. James Eastland—ignited a war against the War on Poverty. As part of President Johnson’s Great Society campaign of 1964, the War on Poverty promised to address and eradicate hunger throughout the nation by making it the “urgent business of all men and women of every race and every religion and every region.”3 However, in a place like Mississippi, specifically the Delta and plantation counties, the eradication of hunger through antipoverty programs threatened the politics of white supremacy.
Most studies of Mississippi during the American civil rights era focus almost exclusively on the strategies and tactics of proponents of the movement in response to white resistance and violence. Lunch counter sit-ins in Jackson, marches in the Delta, demonstrations in Oxford, and boycotts in the southwest and southeast regions of the state are often rehearsed when people learn about the Mississippi movement. While these studies extend our understanding of the struggle for civil rights in the state, they simultaneously limit our understanding of white resistance to the movement. This resistance took many forms, and local, state, and national actors in Mississippi used “food power”—the use of food as a weapon or an element of power—to maintain white supremacy and undermine the civil rights movement.
In his 1978 article “Scarce Goods as Political Weapons: The Case of Food,” political scientist Peter Wallensteen situated food power within a US context and described how food as an economic commodity can be used as weapon.4 According to Wallensteen, since economic commodities are necessary to maintain life, they can also be used to threaten it if “effectively used” as a military weapon.5 Thus, food as an economic weapon, like military weapons, “can be used to punish enemies and reward friends.”6 Drawing on Wallensteen, legal scholars Aeyal Gross and Tamar Feldman argue that “food is not merely an economic commodity, not only because of its essentiality to life, but also because of its significance to human existence: our cultural experiences, our family and communal lives, our pleasures, and our bodies.”7 They use the term food power to describe “situations in which one State seeks a coercive advantage over a target country by manipulating the volume and timing of its own food exports, such as placing a selective embargo on food exports, with the aim of punishing the target country or forcing it to change its policy.”8
In Food Power: The Rise and Fall of the Postwar American Food System, historian Bryan L. McDonald further delineated the ways in which the US has used food power as coercive tactic in times of international crisis. For example, during the American civil rights era, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed its stance on food power in the agriculture handbook Guide to Civil Defense Management in the Food Industry.9 Orville Freeman, John F. Kennedy’s Secretary of Agriculture, wrote in the foreword that “the history of mankind and the records of his wars clearly demonstrate that food . . . is a prime weapon, a prime target, and a prime element of survival.” Recognizing the significance of this statement, McDonald wrote, “Freeman’s attribution of the centrality of food to conflict is part of a long tradition recognizing that food, and the ability to control availability, access, utilization, and stability of food, could be vitally important to the legitimacy and security of states.”10 Moreover, McDonald points to the world food crisis of the 1970s and the food embargo in response to the oil crisis as examples of the US exerting its food power in the global arena.11 According to McDonald, food power can even be used “indirectly, in the form of trade or humanitarian assistance, or directly in the form of giving or withholding food in times of crisis.”12 Gross and Feldman similarly argued that food power can be “exercised not only through direct control over food supply and food availability, but also by impacting people’s access to adequate food.”13
In this essay, I transpose the concept of food power into the context of local politics and inequality in the Mississippi civil rights era to interrogate how local, state, and national actors converged to use food as a weapon to stabilize what they saw a civil rights crisis. To be clear, for white supremacists and pro-segregationists in Mississippi, the development of the civil rights movement in the Magnolia State was a “racial crisis” that threatened the white power structure and the planter class. Thus, the congressional white power structure in Mississippi, led by Whitten, Eastland, and Stennis, used food power to manipulate any efforts of the War on Poverty to uplift poor rural Black communities in the Delta. Such a move to sustain white supremacy made the massive white resistance movement in Mississippi, as historian J. Todd Moye has stated, “sui generis in the heady days of the civil rights revolution.”14
The story of Mississippi’s war against the War on Poverty is instructive and entangled in the political, social, and economic backdrop of the struggle for civil rights in Mississippi. It illustrates how actors in the congressional white power structure in Mississippi used food power, directly stimulated by political maneuverings, to manipulate policies and programs at the intersection of agriculture, food, health, and welfare to maintain white supremacy and thwart any efforts of Black advancement in the state. Therefore, to tell this story I track the political utilization of food power by exploring a wide range of archival materials and scholarly works on the Mississippi movement, tying together narratives that are often told separately. Specifically, this story focuses on two specific instances during the post-1965 civil rights struggle when the congressional white power structure in Mississippi used food power to manipulate Head Start and respond to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s “discovery” of hunger in the Mississippi Delta. This use of food power by the white power structure provides a critical understanding of the social, economic, and political forces that worked against civil rights activism and enhances broader public and scholarly understandings of the American civil rights movement.
The development of organized white resistance and opposition to the American civil rights movement in Mississippi played a critical role in the food power wielded by the state’s congressional white power structure throughout the postwar era. Amplified by the historical politics of white supremacy and the fear of integration, opponents of civil rights reignited the southern quest for “states’ rights” built on the state’s one-party system, which at the time was the Democratic Party.15 Here, states’ rights can be defined as “local autonomy, diminution of federal power, and interposition of state authority between the citizen and supposed excesses of the national government.”16 However, in the case of Mississippi, as historian James W. Silver has shown, the state used federal power to protect its social and economic system—characterized by the plantation system and rurality—to, in fact, destroy local autonomy and thwart the advancement of Blacks in the case of slavery in the 1850s and civil rights in the 1950s. In the case of the 1960s and 1970s, local, state, and federal actors in Mississippi—influenced by what Black studies scholar Clyde Woods described as the “Delta plantation bloc”—crystalized the ideology of white supremacy at the intersection of federal farm policy and food access to undermine Black insurgency and self-determination through antipoverty programs.
The Delta plantation bloc represented a powerful group of white male leaders who were mostly part of the white planter and middle classes who sought to sustain “white supremacist attitudes, alliances, institutions, social policies, and economic programs.” Woods further claims that “plantation bloc leaders asserted their superiority of the plantation system and of their leadership while continually advocating the expansion of their monopoly over agriculture, manufacturing, banking, land, and water. They also sought to preserve their monopoly over local, county, and state finances. Their commitment to the elimination of federal programs designed to lessen ethnic and class exploitation was, moreover, unwavering.”17
To sustain the pace of their dominance over Delta and other plantation counties, the planation bloc created the White Citizens’ Council in 1954 and the State Sovereignty Commission in 1956. At the community level, the White Citizens’ Council was designed to maintain segregation through economic control. At the state level, the State Sovereignty Commission provided detailed surveillance of civil rights activities. Together, these two groups fought viciously to maintain segregation, which represented, as prominent member of the plantation bloc and founder of the White Citizens’ Council Robert “Tut” Patterson stated, “the freedom to choose one’s associates, Americanism, State Sovereignty, and the survival of the white race.”18
Simultaneously, the bloc relied on the political maneuverings of powerful national actors who were also landowners in the region to protect their domination of the region: Jamie Whitten of Tallahatchie County, known as “the permanent secretary of agriculture” who served over fifty years in congress representing most of the Delta; James Eastland of Sunflower County, who served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which allowed him to single-handedly control the results of nearly all of the civil rights bills after 1956 until his retirement in 1978; and John Stennis of Kemper County who served over forty years in congress and who chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee in the 1960s and the Senate Armed Services Committee during the Vietnam War.19 Among the most powerful of them all, Whitten leveraged his clout at the national level in Washington to enhance the lives of white cotton planters in the Delta at the expense of poor rural Blacks. As a cotton planter himself—and chair of the powerful House Agricultural Appropriations subcommittee at the time—Whitten understood both the financial and racial politics of the crop. For example, as political scientist Mary Summers pointed out, under Whitten’s leadership, cotton remained the costliest among all federal agricultural subsidy programs.20 Moreover, Whitten’s political maneuverings between the 1940s and 1960s created conditions that exacerbated poverty, food insecurity and hunger among poor rural Blacks in the Delta.
In late 1945, the Mississippi congressional delegation received a scathing report on the Delta county of Coahoma, written by southern sociologist Frank Alexander. The report, which was overseen by Arthur F. Raper of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE), found that the county’s dependence on plantation politics and white supremacy was linked to the increasing reliance of Blacks on the federal government for assistance for their basic needs such as food.21 “Many southern congressmen saw the Coahoma County report together with the BAE’s release of its postwar conversion plans for the cotton South in 1944 as acts of war,” Summers posited.22 In response, during the House agricultural appropriations hearings in 1946, Whitten led a counterattack, accusing the BAE of trying to disrupt and rework “the social set-up of my section of the Nation or the rest of it with racial intermingling.” He accused them of making friends with groups like the NAACP, which was interested in understanding and dismantling the power dynamics of the plantation economy in the South, which kept Black farmers inferior to and dependent on the white planter class.23
During the mid to late 1940s, moreover, Whitten used his legislative power to block a number of potential USDA studies that attempted to identify social and economic problems of Black army veterans returning from World War II to the South. Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and journalist Nick Kotz argued that these moves by Whitten “helped insure that Agriculture Department farm policy would never seriously include consideration of the effects of its programs on sharecroppers or farmworkers.”24 By the 1960s, Whitten’s power and influence allowed his district to receive $23.5 million dollars in individual federal farm subsidies to reduce acreage in cotton production, which only went .3 percent of the population, while constituents who lived below the poverty threshold, approximately 59 percent, received only $4 million dollars in federal food relief aid.25 Such imbalances perpetuated poverty, food insecurity, hunger, and malnutrition, and infuriated civil rights activists who understood the centrality of federal food relief to the diets of Whitten’s impoverished constituents—mostly displaced Black farmers, sharecroppers, or day-laborers. Moreover, Whitten’s maneuverings also killed a federal program designed to teach displaced Black sharecroppers and farmworkers how to drive tractors during Orville Freeman’s tenure as the US Secretary of Agriculture.26 “As a result,” Kotz noted, “farm policies which have consistently ignored their toll on millions of Black poor have contributed to a rural-urban migration, to a civil rights revolution, and to the ruin of Americans.”27
Political scientist Don F. Hadwiger shared similar insights to Kotz on the relationship between race, federal farm policy, and the civil rights movement: “The civil rights revolution exposed the severe class discrimination which both Negroes and poor whites had experienced and emphasized the Jim Crow practices under which Negroes alone had suffered.”28 Hadwiger found that southern domination throughout each congressional agriculture committee fueled both the protection of white rural farmers in the South and resistance to civil rights and antipoverty projects that sought to uplift those who were marginalized. “Even the domestic food-assistance programs were to be used only to dispose of farm surpluses, to maintain a compliant and low-cost work force, and to bargain for urban votes on farm bills,” he explained.29 The use of farm surplus exclusively for domestic food assistance programs, such as the federal commodities food program and the Food Stamp Program, inextricably linked federal farm, food, and welfare policy.
As a result, the most basic problem with US food assistance programs was that they were “the products of political compromise between legislators who represented hungry voters in the Northeast and those who represented ambitious farmers in the Midwest and South,” historian Felicia Kornbluh argued. “In this compromise, farm interests had the upper hand.”30 This compromise produced two consequences that detrimentally impacted poor rural Blacks. Kornbluh writes,
The leading purpose of these programs was to sustain the prices of agricultural commodities. . . . Neither commodity food nor the Food Stamp Program was “designed primarily to help the poor.” Therefore, USDA administrators did not take it as their charge to correct the limited nutritional value or appeal of the commodities they distributed; they fulfilled the most significant of their objectives by taking commodities out of the for-profit market so that prices did not drop too far. The second consequence of the unequal compromise that underlay the food programs under USDA was that they were administered locally and at county discretion. Large farmers dominated the local governments charged with deciding whether to adopt the program.31
In the Delta, the administration of local food programs by large planters and local governments perpetuated the vulnerability of poor rural Blacks who relied heavily on free food from the surplus commodities program.32> Such programs were not mandated at the local level by the USDA, however, federal law prohibited counties to implement both the free food program and the food stamp program.33 While civil rights activists favored the surplus commodities food program, the white planter class and local white grocers preferred to administer the food stamp program. In Sunflower County, the birthplace of the White Citizens Council, Fannie Lou Hamer and other civil rights activists opposed the food stamp program and organized a campaign in the late 1960s against the program, circulating a petition asking for a free food program to be implemented in the county.34 On paper, the food stamp program had much to offer poor Black sharecroppers and farmworkers: each recipient could buy food stamps, use them, and then receive more stamps to purchase more food. Essentially, this program was designed to increase the purchasing power of the poor. “In practice, though, the food stamp plan amounted to virtual extortion from the poor,” journalist Nick Kotz argued. The program was championed by USDA economists “with the rationale that it would provide more money to the farmer than did the commodity programs.”35
Moreover, the food stamp program was also championed by plantation owner and Sen. James “Big Jim” Eastland, who historian James C. Cobb described as “the staunchest segregationist in the United States,” as a way to boost local business for white grocers. As a card-carrying member of the White Citizens’ Council, Eastland was the epitome of the group. Not only did his power reach all the way to US Senate, he was also one of the largest landowners in Jamie Whitten’s congressional district.36 He owned five thousand acres in Sunflower County and directly benefitted from the USDA’s cotton subsidies and acreage reduction programs. For instance, in 1967 the Eastland plantation received a $168,524.52 cotton subsidy to reduce its acreage in production of the crop. While these instances were not unusual for Delta planters under the leadership of Jamie Whitten in the 1960s, such dynamics coupled with the Delta’s reliance on mechanization to produce cotton and the region’s racist sociopolitical environment caused many Blacks to leave the county. From 1960 to 1970, the Sunflower County Black population decreased by 7,758 and by another 1,670 between 1970 and 1980.37
During the 1964 congressional debate over whether to create the food stamp program, Eastland worked to support the food stamp bill and had a conversation with Lyndon B. Johnson about white grocery store merchants who would benefit from the program. He explained to Johnson that the commodities program in the “nigra areas” caused many merchants not to make a profit although the Blacks who worked on plantations had income to purchase food.38 Using his plantation as an example, Eastland stated, “Now you take the niggers on my property: they got plenty of money, but every damn one of ’em will line up and get commodity. The merchants in my areas want food stamps, because they get a cut out of it.”39
Morris Lewis Jr. of the Lewis Grocer Company in Indianola was representative of white grocery store merchants that Senator Eastland was referring to. Lewis, a financial supporter of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission who owned Sunflower Food Stores and once served as the president of Mississippi Economic Council, was known for his campaign to dismantle the surplus commodity food program in Mississippi in support of the food stamp program.40 In 1962 Lewis wrote a letter to four hundred retailors across Mississippi asking them to join his efforts against the commodities program and to garner support for the then food stamp pilot program. In his letter, he described the commodities program as “a disgrace to the county, the State of Mississippi, and the federal government” and a “growing threat to the free enterprise system.”41 Lewis further lamented that the free food distributed by the commodities program caused “the federal government to enter in the food business in competition with the tax paying food retailers and wholesalers in this state.”42
The letter was quoted in a number of newspapers in the Mississippi Delta, including the Greenville Delta Democrat-Times and the Indianola Enterprise-Tocsin. One article commented that “Lewis suggested that since the responsibility for initiating any kind of food program lies with the boards of supervisors, the retailers talk to their supervisors in favor of making the change from commodity to food stamps.”43 Such power dynamics further exacerbated hunger and starvation among poor rural Blacks in so far as when Sunflower County made the switch from commodities to food stamps in the spring of 1966, over ten thousand people were unable to access food. As food historian John T. Edge observed, “Delta residents went hungrier, children starved.”44
Rather than go hungry, poor Blacks in the county were forced to participate in a newly developed government loan program to purchase stamps or establish credit with local white grocers like Morris Lewis Jr. Civil rights activists in the county saw the process of applying for a loan or credit to purchase food “as one more way for poor Black families to incur debt they could not pay.”45 This situation increased Black dependence on both the white grocery store structure and on plantation owners in the Delta. Historian Mark Newman noted, “In some cases, planters often certified their workers’ income, which determined their eligibility for food stamps, and thus retained a powerful influence over the workforce. Some grocery stores only accepted food stamps for the most expensive brands of food and . . . raised prices when the county entered the food stamp program.”46
The all-white Sunflower County board of supervisors and other county officials used the food stamp program in ways that stripped Blacks of their dignity and autonomy in order to maintain white supremacy. In some instances, as Jill Ann Cooley points out, poor Blacks who mostly worked as day laborers or domestics were subject to various validation procedures beyond getting income approval from white plantation owners, which included allowing them to purchase only certain kinds of foods that were “considered to be fit for a poor black family.”47 Drawing on a report from staff at Sunflower County Progress, the county federal social service agency that ran the Emergency Food and Medical program (EF&M), which helped poor people gain access to food stamps, Cooley wrote that the staff reported that they paid for groceries selected by a beneficiary family, and the family purchased roast beef. The staff considered roast beef to be too expensive compared to bologna or neckbones, on which they thought beneficiaries should subsist. As a result, program officials started selecting and purchasing food for needy families. The sole concern seemed to be price, and perhaps the quality of food to be fit for a poor black family. The EF&M staff made no mention for the preference, nutrition, or autonomy of the community members they served.48
However, the food stamp program was not the only program that the congressional white power structure in Mississippi sought to manipulate to maintain white dominance. They also used their food power to attack a War on Poverty program, Project Head Start, that which addressed the food and health needs of poor rural Black children while supplying jobs to mothers.
In August 1964, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, which established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), headed by Sargent Shriver, the founder of the Peace Corps under President Kennedy’s administration.49 At the foundation of programs initiated by the OEO were community-based agencies under the Community Action Program (CAP). This program was designed to support community-based solutions to poverty by giving poor communities financial support to support their needs and realities.50 For rural Blacks in Mississippi, the program offered more than just an opportunity to address their needs; it allowed them to exercise autonomy from the white power structure that controlled every aspect of their lives. Realizing this, the congressional white power structure in Mississippi demonstrated its blatant disregard for the poverty legislation by unanimously voting against the Economic Opportunity Act and dismantling any policies or programs that addressed the food realities of Blacks or used OEO funds to empower poor rural Blacks to control their own lives.51
In the summer of 1965, the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM) received a $1.5 million grant from the OEO to start a seven-week preschool training program under the national Head Start program. Created by Dr. Tom Levin, a psychoanalyst who worked as part of the “medical arm” of the civil rights movement during Freedom Summer in 1964, the CDGM was a statewide poverty organization that served over six thousand children through eighty-four centers in twenty-four counties, making it the nation’s largest Head Start program at the time. Children who participated in the program received educational training, medical care, and two hot meals a day. For impoverished participants in the Mississippi Delta, who were mostly Black, this program was located in freedom centers and houses established by civil rights organizations and was the only way many of them could access nutritious food, health care, and education. Moreover, staff recruited to run the program were mostly local women and civil rights activists who served as directors and teachers of the centers, allowing many of them to escape dependency on the white power structure for the first time in their lives.52
One year prior to the development of the CDGM’s Head Start program, Levin began to lay the groundwork for the organization and knew that he would need the support of local people who worked with groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Invited by Jim Forman of SNCC to attend the group’s 1964 staff meeting at Waveland, Levin expressed to the group how he envisioned a learning environment for poor Black children that would “be much more than simply early childhood education.” It would also “act as focus to organize a community around their social aspirations.”53 While SNCC did not publicly endorse the CDGM, historian John Dittmer noted that Levin was able to convince SNCC member Frank Smith to be the director of community staff.54
As a result, many movement activists, such as Unita Blackwell and L. C. Dorsey in the Delta were recruited to join the CDGM’s efforts and established centers in their communities.55 The sponsoring agency of the Head Start program became Mary Holmes Junior College, a historically Black private school in the northeastern part of the state, and its central office was located at the headquarters of two dominant civil rights groups, the Delta Ministry and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) in Mount Beulah. Although the CDGM’s Head Start programs were not the only ones operating in the state in the summer of 1965, their programs were almost exclusively led by people who were public supporters of the civil rights movement and saw this antipoverty work as, in the words of L. C. Dorsey, “a continuation of the civil rights movement.”56 This clear connection to the movement and the advancement of a Black antipoverty agenda made the CDGM a target for the Mississippi congressional white power structure and the State Sovereignty Commission. While the local white power structure in the Delta refused to support the program and often harassed CDGM workers, the congressional white power structure decided to attack the group from within the federal government itself.
Less than two months after the start of the CDGM’s Head Start program, John Stennis began a powerful and successful crusade against the organization. Stennis, who once declared that “imported racial zealots and agitators” desired the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was a powerful figure in the Senate Appropriations Committee.57 This committee was the sole source of funding for both the OEO and the Vietnam War, which President Johnson relied on for financing.58 Stennis’s influence as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and later chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee during the Vietnam War allowed him to use funding for the Vietnam War as a way to keep government officials in the OEO and Johnson from interfering with the business of Mississippi. Such power in the Senate yielded constant devastating blows to the CDGM and further exacerbated poverty, hunger, and malnutrition throughout the state.
On June 29, 1965, Stennis demanded that the Appropriations Committee send a group of accountants and inspectors to investigate the CDGM’s operations. Stennis’s desire to send this group came on the heels of charges made against the CDGM earlier that month regarding the misuse of grant funds to support the civil rights movement by Mississippi congressmen William Colmer and John Bell Williams, who coined the term “Black Monday” to describe the Brown decision.59 Moreover, to assist the group of inspectors, the State Sovereignty Commission provided them, and eventually the OEO, with information gathered from two informants placed in the CDGM’s central offices.60 On that same day, Mississippi governor Paul Johnson sent correspondence to Sargent Shriver describing the CDGM as “an effort on the part of extremists and agitators to subvert the lawful authority in Mississippi and create division and dissention between the races.”61
By the end of July 1965 Stennis’s committee discovered that the CDGM had provided bail money for a few employees who were jailed for participating in MFDP civil rights demonstrations in Jackson. The CDGM had “improperly recorded as bail money salary advances it had made to staff members arrested for participating in MFDP protests during their free time.”62 Whether the CDGM directly provided bail for employees or “salary advances” didn’t matter. Stennis used this information to accuse the organization of misusing funds and petitioned the OEO to withhold all future funding. However, instead of withholding funds from the CDGM, the OEO attempted to force the group to relocate from their headquarters on a site operated by the movement to Mary Holmes Junior College as a way to appease Stennis, but to no avail. Activists and CDGM representatives fought against the change of location since the college was located over a hundred miles from most of the active civil rights movement sites. As a result, this further infuriated Stennis and “poisoned the atmosphere between OEO administrators in Washington and CDGM staff members.”63
Nonetheless, after months of fighting the Mississippi congressional white power structure and OEO officials, the CDGM was able to still provide services to their communities and secured a $5.6 million grant from OEO in February 1966 to continue programming into the summer months. While Stennis, joined by Eastland, complained to the OEO that the organization was virtually funding communist efforts of “extreme leftist civil rights and beatnik groups in our state,” the CDGM continued to operate.64 Yet, the summer 1965 struggle for the CDGM caused members of the Delta Ministry to characterize the War on Poverty as a “war against the poor” that contributed “to the further rape and emasculation of the Negro community, enabling the white political structure to intensify even more strongly its hold on community life.”65 Although the CDGM faced constant accusations, by October 1966 the program had spread to thirty counties. Yet, the OEO never fully regained support for the CDGM after Stennis and his committee attacked the organization and started to “comply with the demands of the Mississippi political establishment.”66 As a result, John Stennis and Gov. Paul Johnson developed two poverty programs, one at the local level and one at the state level, to redirect state funding from OEO and block the CDGM from receiving such funds.
At the local level, Stennis and Johnson used OEO funds to establish the flagship War on Poverty initiative—the Community Action Program—in counties throughout the state. While the OEO “envisioned CAP as a cooperative effort by government, the private sector, and poor people to attack the problems of poverty at the most basic level,” John Dittmer contended, “white Mississippians wanted nothing to do with the program in which Blacks participated as equals.” However, due to the controversy surrounding the CDGM, “Governor Johnson and his allies came to see that by setting up CAP agencies in Mississippi communities, local whites could prevent the flow of federal dollars into programs like the CDGM.”67 As a result, the county boards of supervisors, who were mostly plantation owners and white supremacists, appointed all CAP board members in the Delta to advance an anti-Black agenda.68 They selected only whites or wealthy Blacks, mostly men, who were “always either silent or compliant when faced with numerous and powerful whites,” one OEO investigator observed.69 For example, in Bolivar County, the CAP board, composed of eight whites and eight Blacks, voted to withhold OEO funds from the CDGM in the county, which resulted in the program using unpaid volunteers to run centers for over a thousand children.70 Instances such as these occurred throughout the Delta.
At the state level, the Mississippi Action for Progress, Inc. (MAP) organization was developed in September 1966 to eventually replace the CDGM. The twelve-member board appointed by Governor Johnson, which included no women nor poor people, was chaired by Owen Cooper, a successful businessman from Yazoo City who was chair of the Mississippi Economic Council and the Mississippi Chemical Corporation, which at the time was one of the largest agro-chemical companies in the world. For the MAP board Johnson also selected wealthy Delta plantation owners Leroy Price and Oscar Carr Jr., state NAACP president Aaron Henry, and Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights activist Medgar Wiley Evers. Less than three weeks after the board was selected, the Jackson Daily News released a story with the headline “12 Man Board Replaces CDGM.” This publicly signaled the fate of the CDGM.71
By October 1966 the OEO replaced CDGM director Tom Levin and forced the group to relocate its headquarters to the Milner Building in downtown Jackson, which housed the Mississippi division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. At last, the OEO had finally given into the demands of Stennis and his committee after receiving a critical report of the CDGM created by Senate investigator Paul Cotter. In the report, Cotter found that the CDGM centers were being run by staff that “clearly fall into the category of extremists” and could be using the children “as pawns to serve other purposes,” such as spreading the doctrine of some civil rights activists.72 For example, the idea of Black Power was linked to the Head Start program in a cartoon drawn by Bob Howie of the Jackson Daily News that fall. The cartoon depicted a teacher standing in front of a classroom pointing at a blackboard with the words “BLACK POWER” written on it while a student with a T-shirt on with the words “HEAD-START” looked at the blackboard attentively.73
On October 3, 1966, the OEO informed the CDGM that their new grant proposal was rejected and that they would not receive any more funding. Eight days later MAP received $3 million to operate in thirteen counties and another $10 million from Sargent Shriver. In response, activists mobilized to protest and demand that the CDGM be funded, however, by this time the Mississippi congressional white power structure had already won. One year later, after countless attacks and charges against the CDGM by the Mississippi congressional white power structure, the State Sovereignty Commission, and in turn, the OEO, the organization had dissolved, and remaining funds were transferred to MAP in December 1967. By the spring of 1968 the OEO cut Head Start funding in Mississippi by 25 percent in the context of looming conversations about financing the Vietnam War, a move dictated by John Stennis, who controlled the financial underpinnings of the entire federal government.74 This left many CDGM supporters and civil rights activists even more suspicious of federal intervention in community affairs, especially in its efforts to address poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity.
In the midst of the battle between the CDGM and the Mississippi congressional white power structure, the confluence of federal farm aid to the white planter class and federal food assistance to poor rural Blacks attracted national attention in April 1967 when Senators Robert F. Kennedy of New York and Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania “discovered hunger” in the Delta.75 As chairmen of the Senate Committee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty, Clark scheduled hearings at the Heidelberg Hotel in Jackson to learn more about the CDGM and assess “the effectiveness of the Mississippi phase of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty . . . [and] determine by the hearings the success of the state poverty program and decide which of the programs should be continued.”76 Historian Felicia Kornbluh added that Clark ultimately wanted “to illustrate the positive side of the War on Poverty.”77 The CDGM’s Head Start program was the largest in the country at the time, and coming off of its summer 1965 success, it was used as a model to show how funds from the War on Poverty could have positive impacts on communities. However, for poor rural Blacks and civil rights activists in Mississippi, the plight of the CDGM was already leaving a bitter taste in their mouths.
On April 10, 1967, NAACP civil rights attorney and activist Marian Wright Edelman testified before the Senate Subcommittee, which included Jennings Randolph of West Virginia, Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, Winston L. Prouty of Vermont, Jacob K. Kavitz of New York and George Murphy of California.78 Followed by powerful testimonies about the inadequacies of state-administered federal food assistance programs by activists Fannie Lou Hamer (misspelled as “Hammer” in the congressional record) and Unita Blackwell, who were both a part of the “Community Leaders Panel,” Edelman further spoke about the terrible social and economic conditions that many poor rural Blacks in the Delta lived in, and she petitioned the committee to travel to the area to see the poverty for themselves.79 To this point, Delta poverty was virtually “undiscovered” and silenced by the political maneuverings of the Mississippi congressional white power structure. Any time the issue of hunger came up at the national level, for example, Governor Johnson, Jamie Whitten and James Eastland would deny such instances. In one televised interview, Johnson went on record saying, “No one is starving in Mississippi. The Nigra Women I see are so fat they shine,” attempting to dismiss the prevalence of poverty in the state.80
Yet, when Sen. Jacob Javitz asked Edelman whether she felt as if the counties in the Delta “switched to food stamps in order to pressure the very Negroes who needed food the most,” her response shifted the dynamics of the hearing. Moreover, she exposed the conditions created by the local white power structure’s support of the food stamp program and its campaign against the commodities program:
That’s right, Senator Javits, and many people feel too that it’s part of an overall State policy to not respond to the overwhelming need in the Delta in order to force these Negroes out because they don’t want them here. . . . People who have participated in civil rights have been cut off from welfare, and we have been able to document this in many counties. The whole welfare department is simply not functioning to serve the needs for the poor and particularly in the Negro community. . . . [S]o far the poverty program has done nothing to change the basic economic structure, which has to be changed, or to really deal with the root problem that is causing poverty. . . . I wish the Senators would have a chance to go and just look at the empty cupboards in the Delta. . . . Starvation is a major, major problem now.81
In response to her testimony, Senator Clark and Senator Kennedy decided to conduct a tour of the Mississippi Delta, drawing national attention to hunger and poverty among Black Mississippians. “It would seem that one of the first things the subcommittee should do when we get back to Washington,” Senator Clark stated, “is to place the facts of this hearing which have been developed this afternoon about hunger in Mississippi, the inadequacy of the food stamp program, the totally inadequate diet in those areas where food is being given away, before the Department of Agriculture, and insist on a prompt answer as to what can be done about it.”82
Three days after the hearing, Kennedy and Clark returned to Washington, DC, and met with Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman to discuss an intervention for the Delta. They pleaded with Secretary Orville to send emergency aid to the Delta since they had made a promise to Wright and other poor Mississippians that they would do just that. Ultimately, Kennedy and Clark were confronted with strong opposition from Eastland and Whitten.83 As a result, the senators fought for Mississippi and were able to influence the passing of the of the Public Health Service Act (Partnership for Health Amendment) of 1967, which authorized the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to conduct a six-month “comprehensive survey of serious hunger and malnutrition and health problems related thereto in the United States.”84 However, they underestimated Mississippi’s white power structure, which operated beyond the state level into the department.85
Shortly after the passing of the amendment to the Public Health Service Act, Whitten was notified by George Irving, director of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, that Mississippi was on the list of states to be surveyed. Whitten immediately saw this decision as a potential “smear campaign against Mississippi,” and worked to remove Mississippi’s name from the list. As a result, the state was removed from the list and would not be a part of the hunger survey, which further exacerbated the living conditions of Blacks in the Delta. “This kind of bureaucratic-congressional maneuvering, exercised between the lines . . . in the quiet process of hidden power,” Kotz remarked, demonstrated the food power wielded by Whitten in the USDA.86
Whitten’s power prevailed throughout the late 1960s into the 1970s, and Mississippi remained absent from any government-based intervention plans. His ability to control local, national, and state politics ultimately contributed to the failure of the War on Poverty in the Delta.87 Moreover, his devotion to undercutting any programs that would help the poor, especially poor Blacks, was aligned with the tactics of the White Citizens’ Council. In doing so, Whitten initiated a “cold war” against Black progress even before the start of the Mississippi civil rights movement. In response to his influence on the lives of Black Mississippians, activists like Fannie Lou Hamer sought to advance an agenda toward community sovereignty, which recognized that the only true way to change the conditions that Blacks in the Delta lived in would have to come from the communities themselves.
The story of Mississippi’s war against the War on Poverty is instructive. It illuminates the often-overlooked relationship between food, white supremacy, hunger, and poverty during the American civil rights era. Yet, this relationship receives much less attention across scholarly and public conversations on the movement. These conversations tend to focus on civil rights activism and render strategies employed by white opponents invisible or peripheral. As a result, relatively little is known about the use of food or even food power as a strategy to maintain white supremacy. This strategy was designed to undermine post-1965 civil rights activism that sought to address the economic and food realities of poor rural Blacks. While national actors of the civil rights movement faded in to the periphery of the Mississippi struggle after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, local opponents of the movement took center stage. Led by the political maneuverings and food power wielded by congressmen Jamie Whitten, James Eastland, and John Stennis, opponents successfully dismantled antipoverty programs designed to mitigate poverty and hunger in poor rural Black communities. Such efforts at all three levels of government revealed a new wave of white resistance to the movement beyond the usual tactics of media manipulation, violence, and economic intimidation.
Therefore, to understand this wave of white resistance in the post-1965 civil rights struggle, new frameworks are needed to understand and analyze the many facets of white supremacy during the civil rights era. By shifting our gaze to the politics and strategies employed by white supremacists, I shed light on critical elements—such as the use of food power—of the civil rights era that helps us fully understand the struggles of the past. In this way, food power could also be used as a framework to reveal unexplored aspects of the civil rights era and illustrate how food, and the control over access to food, mattered to both proponents and opponents of the movement. However, more scholarly work is needed to gain an understanding of the legacies and implications of the relationship between food power, white supremacy, and the civil rights movement. To do this, scholars will have to read the politics of white supremacy as an integral part of not only the civil rights struggle in Mississippi but of the larger Black freedom struggle and the political history of the United States.
NotesI would like to sincerely thank Dr. Noliwe Rooks, professor, Africana studies, Cornell University, and the reviewers for comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this manuscript.
- Clyde Adrian Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta (London: Verso, 1998), 166.
- James C. Cobb, “Somebody Done Nailed Us on the Cross”: Federal Farm and Welfare Policy and the Civil Rights Movement in the Mississippi Delta, Journal of American History 77, no. 3 (1990): 923.
- Marcie Cohen Ferris, The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 285.
- Peter Wallensteen, “Scarce Goods as Political Weapons: The Case of Food, Journal of Peace Research 13, no. 4 (1976), 277–98.
- Ibid., 277.
- Ibid., 278.
- Aeyal Gross and Tamar Feldman, “‘We Didn’t Want to Hear the Word Calories’: Rethinking Food Security, Food Power, and Food Sovereignty—Lessons from the Gaza Closure,” Berkeley Journal of International Law 33, No. 2, (2015): 433.
- Ibid., 431.
- United States Department of Agriculture, “Guide to Civil Defense Management in the Food Industry,” Agriculture Handbook, Washington, DC: Agricultural Marketing Service (November 1963): i.
- Bryan McDonald, Food Power: The Rise and Fall of the Postwar American Food System (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 4.
- Ibid., 6.
- Ibid., 3.
- Gross and Feldman, 380.
- J. Todd Moye, Let the People Decide: Black Freedom and White Resistance Movements in Sunflower County, Mississippi, 1945–1986 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 33.
- James W. Silver, Mississippi: The Closed Society (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964), 6.
- Ibid., 7.
- Woods, 4–5.
- Robert B. Patterson, “The Citizens’ Council—A History,” The Citizen: Official Journal of the Citizens’ Councils of America 8 (January 1964): 8.
- Woods, 198.
- Mary Summers, “The New Deal Farm Programs: Looking for Reconstruction in American Agriculture,” Agricultural History, 74, no. 2 (2000), 241–45.
- Ibid., 252.
- Ibid., 252.
- Whitten qtd. in ibid., 253.
- Nick Kotz. Let Them Eat Promises: The Politics of Hunger in America. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969) 93.
- Cobb, 923.
- Moye, 168.
- Kotz, 93.
- Don F. Hadwiger, “The Freeman Administration and the Poor,” Agricultural History 45, no. 1 (1971): 22.
- Ibid., 22.
- Felicia Kornbluh, “Food as a Civil Right: Hunger, Work, and Welfare in the South after the Civil Rights Act,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 12, no. 1–2 (2015): 143.
- Ibid., 143–44.
- Cobb, 922.
- Angela Jill Cooley, “Freedom’s Farms: Activism and Sustenance in Rural Mississippi,” in Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama, ed., J. J. Wallach (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2015) 208.
- Ibid., 208.
- Kotz, 52–54.
- Cobb, 919.
- Moye, 169.
- Ibid., 112.
- Qtd in ibid., 112.
- Evidence of Mr. Morris Lewis Jr.’s financial contributions to the Sovereignty Commission can be found in the Sovereignty Commission’s Online Repository at http://www.mdah.ms.gov/arrec/digital_archives/sovcom/result.php?image=images/png/cd07/051214.png&otherstuff=6|70|0|84|1|1|1|50490|#.
- “Indianolan Hits Food Dole Plan,” Greenville Delta Democrat-Times, 18 November 1962, box #22693 [microform], Delta Democrat-Times, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
- John T. Edge, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South (New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 50.
- Cooley, 208.
- Mark Newman, Divine Agitators: The Delta Ministry and Civil Rights in Mississippi (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004), 163.
- Cooley, 209.
- Ibid., 209.
- Ferris, 285.
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 363.
- Ibid, 370.
- Dittmer, Local People, 368–71; Chana Kai Lee, For Freedom’s Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999) 143–47; and Woods, 196–97.
- Levin quoted in Dittmer, Local People, 369.
- Ibid., 370.
- Greta de Jong, You Can’t Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 64.
- Dorsey quoted in ibid., 64.
- Stennis quoted in Woods, 165.
- Newman, 41.
- Dittmer, Local People, 371.
- Ibid., 371.
- Johnson quoted in Woods, 196.
- Newman, 41.
- Dittmer, Local People, 372.
- Ibid., 375.
- Executive Committee Report of the Delta Ministry (October 1965) quoted in Woods, 197.
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 343.
- Dittmer, Local People, 375.
- Woods, 197.
- OEO investigator quoted in Dittmer, Local People, 376.
- Dittmer, Local People, 375–76.
- Dittmer, Local People, 377–82; Payne, 343–45; and Woods, 197.
- Cotter’s report quoted in Dittmer, Local People, 377.
- Bob Howie, “Today’s Lesson in Child Development,” Jackson Daily News, 25 August 1966, Box 13a, Folder: Black Power, Mississippi Council of Human Relations Papers, 1960–80, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
- Dittmer, Local People, 379; Payne, 345.
- Kornbluh, 153–54.
- A. B. Albritton, “Senators to Probe State Poverty War,” Jackson Clarion-Ledger, April 9, 1967, Robert F. Kennedy Subject Files, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
- Kornbluh, 153.
- United States Congress, Examination of the War on Poverty: Hearings before the United States Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty, Ninetieth Congress, First Session, on April 10, 1967, Washington: US Government Print Office, 642–58.
- Kotz, 5.
- Payne, 344.
- United States Congress, Examination of the War on Poverty, 653–55.
- Ibid., 655.
- Kotz, 65.
- Ibid., p.82; United States Congress, Partnership for Health Amendments of 1967: Hearings, Ninetieth Congress, First Session, on S. 1131 and H.R. 6418 [and] S. 894, Washington: US Government Print Office, 334–36.
- Kotz, 84.
- Ibid., 85–86.
- Ibid., 92.