Q&A with Monica White: Black farmers’ role in the struggle for civil rights

Farming isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when we think of the civil rights movement. But a new book tells the buried stories of black agrarian communities that used land and agriculture to build strategies for collective liberation throughout the 20th century. In Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, Monica M. White, assistant professor of environmental justice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, traces the history of black land-based social movements from the time of slavery to today’s urban gardens in Rust Belt cities.

“This book is an effort to recover, tell, and honor the stories of collective agency and community resilience of the black rural poor, a group the civil rights movement left behind,” White writes in the book’s introduction. “Our historical memory has been profoundly affected by those narratives of the civil rights movement that, in emphasizing the ‘talented tenth,’ have failed to capture the roles of black working-class men and women and thus often have ignored the legacy of black farmers and those who lived close to the land.”

FERN’s Leah Douglas spoke with White about how her book updates our thinking on the civil rights movement, the influence of black agricultural cooperatives, and what black agrarian movements can teach us about fighting for justice today. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you become interested in the history of black agrarian movements?

I was moving back to Detroit to take care of my parents, and I wanted to localize my research. I had always known about African Americans who grew food in Detroit. There was conversation [about urban gardening], there was organizing, a little bit of media attention, but not much. In the media and the conversation, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. Meanwhile, everyone I knew grew food — my dad grew food, my sister grew food on the east side of Detroit, corn, zucchini, all kinds of crops. I didn’t understand why the image of the urban gardening movement did not reflect people who looked like me.

So I was trying to understand two things: Who are the African Americans who are involved in the gardening movement in Detroit? And what were their reasons for doing so? What was it that encouraged people to connect with agricultural roots that were one generation removed?

I met Baba Yalik Makini, who convened the meeting that led to the founding of the Detroit Black Community Food Network. Through that relationship, I discovered a whole room full of folks who were asking these questions about where food is coming from. I found it compelling to not only understand why people were turning to agriculture in the 2000s, but also to understand agriculture and black folks today. Then I had to trace the trajectory of black folks and agriculture. That led me to the South. I began to see all these historical moments when African Americans turned to food production as a strategy of resistance and resilience.

How does this book amend or update how we think about certain black thinkers and the history of cooperatives in the civil rights movement?

You can’t talk about the history of African Americans in agriculture without talking about the figures who either worked with farmers or taught farmers. As a sociologist, I couldn’t avoid Booker T. Washington. I couldn’t avoid George Washington Carver. And then by association you also have to include W.E.B. DuBois. It’s important to amend or update the work of these “three wise men.”

At these moments of economic collapse, especially thinking about when Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver were creating Tuskeegee, they were trying to really figure out, post-slavery, what direction do they go? And part of that direction was knowing that they were involved in agriculture, and that agriculture played a central role in how to create institutions — banking, religious, and educational institutions. To me, to revisit their words meant reaching back to offer a lens through which we should understand a way forward now.

If, as Mrs. [Fannie Lou] Hamer says, everything comes from the land, how do we then return to the land to feed ourselves differently? Feeding ourselves leads us to think about how to educate ourselves differently. Food becomes this foundation. I wanted to root that in the scholarship and the commitment of those before us who offered some pretty clear instructions on how important agriculture is.

The brilliance of Mrs. Hamer was her message that there is honor, dignity, and respect that comes through working and building and living together, through collective strategies. That’s a really important message that I think people could make use of today.

Many of the historical organizations and thinkers you profile explicitly linked political action and access to land and food. What groups are tying those two things together today?

The Detroit Black Community Food Network, Soul Fire Farm, and many of the members of the National Black Food & Justice Alliance think that land, food, and freedom are connected and [can be] strategies for building whole sustainable communities.

In the book, you discuss communities of black farmers who chose to stay in the South despite the Great Migration and industrialization. Today, many farmers similarly resist moving to urban areas; they want to stay on the land and preserve their way of life. Can you discuss the desires and motivations of black farmers who wanted to stay in the South?

A lot of times people intimate or suggest that African Americans left the South because they didn’t want to do the work. It’s way more complicated than that. African Americans were willing to do the work, but they also were caught in systems, such as sharecropping and tenant farming, that didn’t allow them to reap what they could have sown. The nature of those relationships meant that people were working all season and, at the end, still owed someone. To me, people left the South because they felt like that was the only way to be successful for their families. They left because of the conditions of exploitation and oppression.

The land has always meant freedom, for black farmers especially. The freedom to do what they wanted, when they wanted. But it also created important relationships among them. When farmers didn’t have something, or didn’t know how to do something, they were able to create these networks. A rural context lends itself to that in ways that are different from an urban context.

As Mrs. Hamer said, if you leave the land, you leave everything. At least if you stay on the land, we have something on which to build.

Many of the black cooperatives you profile in the book formed in response to specific types discrimination. For example, the Mid-South Oil Cooperative was a response to white landowners refusing to sell black farmers oil after they registered to vote. What are the specific types of discrimination that drive such cooperative organizing today?

There are probably two strains of cooperative development I see as most significant. One is in food and the food system co-ops, and the other is services and utilities. There are organizations in the South, especially the Federation [of Southern Cooperatives] and others, that are trying to find ways to make sure people have the basics — access to running water, access to energy. And they found that in establishing a cooperative, people are able to provide those services in environmentally sustainable ways. We may want to do solar, we may want to do wind, but having that cooperative allows us to think about what it is that we want and what’s in our best interest.

Accessing nutrient-rich food is another reason that people are turning to cooperatives. I see [food] marketing co-ops where people are trying to figure out how to collaborate. Even if it’s not a [formal] co-op, [people are] doing the work collectively to create community wellness and community wealth.  

Could an organization like the Federation of Southern Cooperatives or other historically black cooperatives be recreated today? In what ways were they products of their time?

Especially in rural communities, the farmers with whom I work say that if it wasn’t for the co-op, they wouldn’t still be farmers. Absolutely the collective and the cooperative are necessary today. There are lots of benefits that people get from being a member-owner of a cooperative. Member ownership … is a form of political education. If I vote for my co-op board, I also want to vote for an elected official who will represent me.

[Cooperatives] are teaching resistance and resilience and offering a different model. The cooperative model allows us to develop the ideas around resource regeneration, as opposed to a resource-extraction model. That’s why cooperatives have been, and continue to be, important.

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