Feb. 21, 2019
Fannie Lou Hamer and Farming as Activism
“A PIG AND A GARDEN”
Dr. Monica M. White, Ph.D. shares an excerpt from her new book, Freedom Farmers, with the work of Fannie Lou Hamer leading the charge as an example of social justice through agriculture.
Editor’s Note: In her new book, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, Associate Professor of Environmental Justice Dr. Monica M. White explores the experience of black farmers in the United States from the early days of our country to the modern fields and markets. Today, Dr. White has shared an edited excerpt with Life & Thyme that focuses on Fannie Lou Hamer in particular, along with her trailblazing efforts. Dr. White is a pioneer in her own field, as the first African American woman to secure tenure in both the College of Agricultural Life Sciences and the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Freedom Farmers is now available.
In October 1967, the renowned Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer welcomed a truck delivering fifty young female pigs and five brown Jersey boars to Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta. A welcome reception, complete with music and dancing, was held in the breeding and boarding barn built by local women.
The Sunflower Pigs were to become Sunflower’s pig bank, Heifer International’s first U.S.-based project. Families who participated in the project would raise a piglet for two years, bring it back to mate at the bank, and then replenish the bank with two pigs from every litter. The offspring could be sold or slaughtered or mated. By 1969, just two years later, the pig bank had provided over a hundred families with pigs, each of which produced over 150 pounds of meat. It was just one of many strategies adopted by the organization Hamer had founded: the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC), a community-based, rural and economic development project. Between 1967 and 1976, the FFC provided housing, health care, employment, education, and access to healthy food. Members of the FFC were displaced land/farmworkers, dispossessed of access to land and brushed aside by mechanization.
Unknowingly, today’s urban community farmers draw on the legacy of Hamer’s vision. While the media has often focused on white members of the urban agriculture/food justice/sovereignty movements, both have a strong African American contingent who draw on generations of farming knowledge and a recognition that the existing power structure has little stake in our well-being.
Hamer’s life and work suggests how intertwined the strategy of raising food was with the mainstream of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. This synergy also suggests why it may be a key strategy in addressing inequality in America today. Hamer had become a full-time activist and field organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee after losing her job and home because she refused to withdraw her application to vote. The White power structures of the Jim Crow South, Hamer explained, were controlling African Americans through the threat of starvation:
Where a couple of years ago white people were shooting at Negroes trying to register [to vote], now they say, “go ahead and register—then you’ll starve.”
She was known to say that so long as she had a pig and a garden, she could survive.
Our institutional memory of the Civil Rights Movement largely focuses on urban dwellers and public demonstrations—those who might have had a backyard garden but purchased most of their food in a store. Yet Hamer’s life suggests that those who grew the food and suffered the most profound impacts of Southern racial terrorism throughout their lives played a key role as well. Born in 1917, she was the twentieth child of sharecroppers. She worked in the fields from the age of six and experienced involuntary sterilization when she underwent surgery to have a uterine tumor removed. Caustically and justly, given the state’s role in promoting such abuses against poor Black women, she called it a “Mississippi appendectomy.” Of losing her job because she had led a contingent of African Americans to register to vote, she later said, “They kicked me off the plantation, they set me free. It’s the best thing that could happen. Now I can work for my people.”
Hamer’s energy was extraordinary, though she had a limp due to childhood polio and permanent kidney damage due to a beating she sustained in jail at the behest of her jailers. Her nationally televised testimony at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 was televised multiple times throughout the convention and contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1964 and 1965, and the Mississippi State Senate in 1971, an unsurprising result given voter suppression of African Americans, but she was an official delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1968.
In 1973, FFC had six hundred acres in crop production, three hundred families were recipients of animals from the pig bank, and seventy families were living in the organization’s low-income, affordable housing. They distributed scholarships to local high school students to attend college and were able to support the start of several Black businesses. It was one of the first Head Start preschool sites in the state. Though recession, natural disaster, loss of funding, and the illness of Hamer, its most successful fundraiser led to the collapse of the FFC, its extraordinary success for a time suggests the power of strategies built on working the land, local sourcing, and self-reliant communities. Given its time, scope, intention, and liberatory vision, as well as the fact that this vision was enacted within a pervasively oppressive and racially hostile environment, the movement—while relatively short lived—was a manifestation of self-reliance and the capacity of a community to come together for the provision of food, housing, shelter, education, health care, and employment. This radical experience constituted an important chapter in the Black Freedom Movement. And FFC’s present offspring, organizations like the Southeast African American Farmers Organic Network, the Southern Black Women’s Initiative or organizations such as the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and the many members of the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, may yet achieve her dreams of social justice through agriculture.