Reviewed by Jon Magee
Monica White’s recent book Freedom Farmers covers the important but overlooked history of the southern Black farmers who built cooperatives as a strategy for survival and self-determination. As White shows, this cooperative legacy prefigures contemporary urban farming and the movements for food justice and food sovereignty in the twenty-first century.
The book begins with a survey of “intellectual traditions in Black agriculture,” profiling Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, and W.E.B. DuBois. Circa 1900, the vast majority of
African Americans lived on farms in the rural south, and each of these thinkers took seriously the need to improve the lives of Black farmers. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute and related institutions for exactly this purpose, establishing a loan fund for Black farmers; a regional conference for Black farmers; the Negro Cooperative Farm Demonstration Service; and the Tuskegee Agricultural Experiment Station, eventually headed by Carver. “Tuskegee was the first large-scale program of any kind in the United States to support the agricultural version of the American Dream” for African Americans, and its programs catered directly to the most urgent educational and practical needs of Black farmers, from farm management to soil fertility to foraged foods. DuBois, for his part, studied cooperative institutions as a basis for community self determination and collective advancement. He also actively promoted cooperatives through the Negro Cooperative Guild, “a national study circle [created] to inspire Black cooperative business development around the country”.
The second part of the book pivots to the histories of several farm cooperatives in the South, all founded in 1967. The first of these, Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), was established in the Mississippi Delta by farmer and civil rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer. As Hamer described, “Down where we are, food is used as a political weapon.” From the New Deal on, white plantation owners adopted mechanization and herbicides to reduce their dependence on laborers and tenant farmers, and this strategy only became more aggressive as Civil Rights campaigns heated up. Black farmers without work and without access to land, abandoned by relief programs controlled by hostile local governments, had to choose between starving in place or leaving the countryside. FFC resisted this false choice by operating community gardens for subsistence, fields of cash crops, a “Bank of Pigs,” a housing development corporation, one of the first Head Start programs, two sewing cooperatives, and a disaster relief program. Despite its promise and the great need it served, the cooperative was short-lived. FFC depended on the whims of distant philanthropists, and with her own health failing, Hamer struggled to raise funding while also attending to the work of running the organization. By 1975, FFC closed down for good.
White also briefly describes the North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative, one county over from FFC, which grew from a partnership with a health clinic affiliated with Tufts University, that distributed fresh produce to members to address chronic malnutrition in the community.
The largest of the cooperatives profiled here is the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC), a “co-op of co-ops” which today still spans the region of the southeastern US. FSC includes a variety of cooperative businesses, not just farms, but farms form a key part of their organization and membership. Like many farm co-ops, FSC helps members with both buying inputs and marketing produce, offering farmers a better deal on both ends. FSC also offers significant educational programs for member farmers, ranging from farm management and growing methods to new crops and technologies. The federation faced repeated harassment from the white establishment as they built a formidable institution for supporting members, yet they weathered these storms and are now in their fifty-fourth year.
In recounting these histories, White sticks mostly to the cooperatives themselves—their origins, their vision, the real benefits they provide to their members. She doesn’t shy away from recounting the oppression and violence farmers experienced nor the backlash from local white power structures against the new co-ops, but, like W.E.B. DuBois in his classic work Black Reconstruction in America, White focuses on uncovering the collective agency of Black people in shaping their own destiny. Her telling of these stories highlights hope and committed struggle against racialized violence, labor exploitation, and hunger amidst plenty. Like Ned Cobb a successful Black farmer in Alabama who joined the Sharecroppers Union to fight for justice for Black people and against exploitation by white landowners a generation earlier, the farmers in these stories fight to remain on the land against all odds and power structures.
The book finally circles back to White’s hometown, where she first encountered farming-as-resistance through the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN). Much like the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program or Hamer’s Freedom Farm, organizers with DBCFSN saw that “food was simply a basic necessity. Any strategy that sought self-reliance had to have food access as a building block”. Their work is “grounded in an antiracist, anticapitalist mindset and emphasizes cooperative effort and collective wealth-building”. DBCFSN interweaves political education with food and farming at D-Town Farm and promotes economic autonomy—building a local food system where community members control and benefit from what is grown and sold.
Early in the book White notes that one of her major objectives in Freedom Farmers is to connect contemporary urban farmer-activists to a history of intertwined struggles—struggles to keep farming and stay on the land, to satisfy people’s need for adequate housing and nutrition, to build a basis for economic prosperity, to labor under fair conditions, and to shape a community’s destiny. White draws a clear parallel between the collapsing market for farm labor in the Mississippi Delta and the disinvestment of urban Detroit. By no coincidence, both processes revved up in the 1950s during the postwar campaigns against Jim Crow. Both situations created the opportunity—the necessity—for collective, innovative projects towards the goals of liberation and community self-determination. These struggles are neglected by Civil Rights narratives that overemphasize legislative wins and individual advancement.
Freedom Farmers is a welcome and needed corrective to this neglect. How do we learn from the histories Monica White records here?
As a community organizer and farmer myself, I wonder what’s changed (or not) in the US since these cooperatives were founded in 1967. For one thing, beginning with the “War on Poverty”, government policy spurred the growth of a sprawling nonprofit industrial complex that has blunted, diverted, and distracted social movements that demand transformation. Just as there was never a shortage of good farmland in the Delta, there is no shortage of philanthropic dollars today—yet hardly any of those resources are put in the service of grassroots movements for justice, especially movements led by People of Color (see, for example, “Changing the Conversation: Philanthropic Funding and Community Organizing in Detroit” by the Detroit People’s Platform). Yet, we are again in a ‘movement moment,’ and communities are mobilized and tackling a broad front of issues. Thanks to the organizing of Black Lives Matter, our national awareness of racialized violence and our willingness to transform a white supremacist system is greater than at any time since the 1970s.
Freedom Farmers confirms that farming and food are a necessary battleground in the struggle for justice, but it also highlights the courage, leadership, and vision that the Black liberation movement has brought to food and farming. For farmers and others that are not already steeped in that movement, the history that Monica White offers striking examples of what food systems can look like when they’re rooted in grassroots movements.
Jon Magee is a community organizer based in western Massachusetts.