Food for Freedom: the black freedom struggle and the politics of food
Potorti, Mary E.
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This dissertation situates concerns of food access and nutrition at the center of United States struggles for racial justice during the long civil rights era. The persistence of widespread hunger amidst agricultural abundance created a need and an organizing opportunity that proponents of black freedom readily seized, recognizing the capacity of food to perpetuate oppression and to promote human equality. These efforts took many forms. Chapter One examines the dietary laws and food economy of Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam. Muhammad's prohibition of pork, processed commodities, and "soul food" aimed to improve the health of black Americans while elevating them morally and spiritually. Muslim food enterprises established to provision the Black Muslim diet encouraged black industry, autonomy, and self-help by mirroring the white capitalist food system. Chapter Two analyzes the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's Food for Freedom campaign of the early 1960s. In response to local efforts to thwart voter registration by withholding federal food aid from Mississippi sharecroppers, SNCC launched a nationwide food drive. SNCC's assessment of food security as a civil right, directly linked to the ability of the rural poor to exercise the franchise, resonated with northern sympathizers, prompting the development of Friends of SNCC chapters to support those starving for freedom. Chapter Three investigates the Black Panther Party's community food initiatives. Beginning with free breakfast programs for schoolchildren and culminating in spectacular food giveaways, these endeavors worked to neutralize the power of hunger to inhibit the physical development, educational advancement, and political engagement of the urban poor. In doing so, the Panthers forged unlikely alliances while sparking police and FBI repression. Programs and campaigns such as these acknowledged and resisted the function of hunger in maintaining structures of white privilege and black oppression, politicizing hunger and malnutrition by construing them as intended outcomes of institutional racism. This study offers revealing historical precursors to twenty-first century debates about hunger, food security, food deserts, childhood nutrition, obesity, agricultural subsidies, and federal food aid, investigating the civil rights era through the lens of food politics while adding historical context to scholarship of food justice.