When Farming and Civil Rights Intersect

In June of this year I had the privilege of attending a portion of the 50th anniversary celebration of Freedom Summer in Jackson, Mississippi. The experience was profound and a bit haunting to me. I was just six years old in 1964 when the original events took place, including occurrences of murder and general mayhem, leading up to the Civil Rights Act of that same summer and the Voting Rights Act the following year.

Growing up in a totally white rural community outside Chicago meant that the interpretation offered to me of the Civil Rights Movement was sometimes less than charitable, and I have worked hard to replace my first impressions ever since. The black and white images from television, showing both unimaginable brutality and equally surprising solidarity among “Freedom Riders” and other activists, were stunning then and have stayed with me all these years. So it was poignant and humbling, to say the least, to be in Jackson with some of the people who had appeared in those news reports so long ago.

My principal reason for attending the event this year was to help moderate a discussion between civil rights leaders, old and new, and several of my colleagues who are leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement of today, to see what we could learn from those who had been on the frontlines of social change.  Imagine the sense of awe we felt when the youngest Freedom Rider from the early sixties introduced himself and participated in our meeting. We had scheduled two hours for this exchange, but could easily have filled two days . . . our challenge now is to never let this conversation end.

The point is – and this was driven home to us in no uncertain terms – the challenge of 1964 was to “stay alive” while standing up for the rights of an oppressed community.  By contrast, we have pretty much been unable to create that same sense of urgency today, even though the cause now before us may even be greater. So here is where the haunting part of the experience comes in. What would it take for us to understand and implement the risks necessary to create the real change we seek through sustainability in farming and food systems?  That question is hard enough to formulate in one’s mind, and the answer even more challenging.

The question is tough, perhaps because the opposition is not nearly so well understood or recognized.  It is not so hard to organize and react if the forces holding you down are using attack dogs, fire hoses and the hangman’s noose as instruments of communication. In some ways we face the same foes today, perpetually represented by greed, ignorance and indifference, but the tools being used are far more subtle.  Yet we sense the challenge all the same, whether it be from the dominance of multinational corporations in our daily lives, the tragic loss of diversity in nature, the pervasive use of synthetic chemicals in agriculture, or the constantly unfolding healthcare crisis in our society.  There is a common thread here; it’s really all one-in-the-same oppressor we face.  And though solutions will necessarily be as complex as the problems being addressed, we do know that sustainable farming has an important role to play in every single aspect of this battle.

That brings me to the other lesson we learned in Jackson. Diversity is the key to any effective and lasting social change. It may have been that relieving oppression with respect to the black community was the point of the original Freedom Summer, but the successes achieved at that time were due in large part to racial and ethnic diversity.  Half of the volunteers who showed up to help in Mississippi that summer were white, and 60% of those were Jewish. There was something about the commonality they all shared within the context of diversity that helped to make the difference in a very desperate situation. And why should we not be surprised by this? It is comforting to know that what works on farms also works in social movements – diversity of all kinds is, after all, the key to achieving sustainability in agriculture, anytime, anywhere.

So how will we know when we’re ready for real social change to occur?  These two conditions must prevail, that we understand the urgency of such change in order to stay alive, and that we are firmly committed to the necessary role of diversity in achieving lasting transformation. Short of these, we will remain in this prolonged wilderness of time, just wondering what meaningful change would actually be like, and trying to remember the deep, dark shadows of our younger days when change seemed so scary, so inevitable, and so long overdue.

Ultimately, we need to understand that when we go out into our barns, greenhouses, fields and pastures, or just to the garden in the yard, we do so in order to assure a more just future, not only for our own families and communities, but for all peoples on this planet, no matter how much we may have grown to think of them as the cause of our problems.  At that point, our sustainable farming dreams will have become the new Civil Rights Movement of this still rather fledgling new century.

4 thoughts on “When Farming and Civil Rights Intersect

  1. While I think that it’s great that you, as the executive director of PASA, are talking about race and I share the sense of urgency with regard to implementing sustainable farming practices, I find the comparison between the racial justice and the sustainable agriculture movement, when made by a white person, to be deeply disrespectful.

    White progressives are really fond of invoking the Civil Rights Movement. In my opinion, nobody but someone who was directly involved in the Civil Rights Movement has a right to compare something to the Civil Rights Movement–just like nobody but someone who lived through the Holocaust has a right to compare someone to Hitler. Although different forms of oppression are linked, they are not interchangeable.

    Furthermore, white supremacy exists within the sustainable agriculture movement too. The frame of “we are all fighting the same oppressor” overlooks that. Actually, we are all (to differing degrees) both the subject and the instrument of oppression.

    I recently had the pleasure of attending a teach-in about white supremacy in the urban farming movement by Celeta Hickman http://www.ujamaacollective.org/staff/. She pointed out the fact that many urban farms started in black neighborhoods are staffed by white Americorp kids. This despite the fact that some of the best ag schools in the country are historically black colleges and universities.

    It is difficult as it is crucial for white people to do right be people of color–especially on an institutional level. It isn’t enough to view all people as equal on an intellectual level (which I believe most people in the sustainable ag movement do). It isn’t enough to invite people of color to be keynote speakers. In order to genuinely challenge white supremacy, trust needs to be restored, hard introspection needs to take place, material conditions need to be addressed, inroads need to be built.

    What is PASA doing to challenge white supremacy within the sustainable agriculture movement?

  2. Excellent post Brian, you have drawn a striking parallel, one that is certainly near to my heart. I have been a civil rights activist since the Vietnam war and I’ve had the privilege to march in the shadow of those far greater than I can only dream.

    Issues that I have addressed in the past were dealt with effectivly only when I could get the attention of someone on the other side who was sensitive to our plight. Most often this person or group of people will be someone in an elected position.
    And that terrifies me because even though the price of a politician has come down, we are still out spent at every level. The more these atrosities against our farmers continue the more desensitize we as a nation become, our battle will always be against great odds but with people like you, we have a fighting chance I am proud to man this battlefield with you and those who share our passion.

    Let me encourage you to continue in this direction.

  3. There is a subtle and distinct difference between that civil rights struggle and today’s work to create healthier farms/eaters/communities: deaths and murders of citizens and activists in the civil rights movement was (is) immediate, while the slow decline of personal/community/farm/food system health is less dramatic. We suffer today from “death by a thousand cuts” which moves the general public less than the visuals of battered or dead folks. This allows the status quo to continue.

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