In her 2002 book, A Different Day: African American Struggles for Justice in Rural Louisiana, 1900–1970, Greta de Jong insisted that we cannot understand the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s unless we grasp the significance of black freedom struggles that preceded that movement. Now, in You Can't Eat Freedom, de Jong revisits the rural South, this time expanding her scope beyond Louisiana to Mississippi and Alabama, and argues that the bumpy road of that longer movement did not cease after the achievement of voting rights. Rather, as she shows in this account of the southern cooperative movement from the 1960s through the 1980s, with further insights into the decades since, the freedom movement and its opponents changed direction. You Can't Eat Freedom, based on research in sixty archival collections, begins in the mid-1960s, at an optimistic time when many former African American sharecroppers, displaced by mechanization and reprisals for civil rights activism, refused to abandon the South and instead strived to achieve an autonomous, sustainable economic existence. Within and beyond the three states on which she concentrates, starving evicted laborers and struggling black landowners—many already seasoned activists—established agricultural and nonagricultural cooperative businesses involving the production and marketing of goods. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives, founded in 1967, together with local and regional organizations created subsequently, provided education and information, established credit unions, secured government and private foundation financial support, and fought political battles. In one of de Jong's most important interventions, she critiques the view that, as she puts it, “economic marginalization was the inevitable outcome for workers whose labor was no longer needed and that nothing could alter sharecroppers' fate once the forces of agricultural modernization took hold” (p. 12). Marginalization, she contends, was the outcome of conflict. Even as African American participants in the cooperative movement achieved economic stability, they confronted increasingly harsh opposition. My only concern with this otherwise-excellent analysis is that I would like to know more about how activists in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana not only networked with each other but also faced distinct economic and political circumstances. Few historians of the post–civil rights era have achieved what de Jong has by making political economy pivotal to her study, not “the backdrop or a side note to other events” (p. 11). Her account of the cooperative movement forms the spine of the book; however, she interlaces chapters on the movement with others on political and economic developments that nearly undermined the movement during successive presidential administrations and rejuvenated white supremacy in new forms. De Jong offers a particularly devastating account of how Ronald Reagan's cuts to nearly every cooperative assistance program since the War on Poverty forced the cooperative movement to regroup to stay alive. The book speaks as much to historiography on the New Right as to studies of the black freedom movement, carving out a methodology that will be of great import to scholars and students alike. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Journal of American History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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