9.19.2015

The Decline of the South
Food Issues Book Club, The Politics of Food Supply Chapter 5

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Politics of Food Supply, Chapter 5:
The Decline of the South - Changing Power within U.S. Agriculture

Editor's note: the photographs accompanying the summary were taken at Whitney Plantation (by me) in the summer of 2015.  The Whitney Plantation is the only plantation in the South that operates as a slavery museum (rather than a wedding hotspot).  Originally planted with indigo, sugar, and rice, cotton is still grown on the adjacent property.  After slavery, the plantation was used extensively for sharecropping.  The plantation was built by the Haydel family.  (Yes, that Haydel family.)

Summary:

As discussed in the previous chapter, the decades between 1945 and 1975 saw dramatic changes in U.S. agricultural policy, accompanied by societal and political shifts in power.
"Southern planters tended to favor supply management policy, but their ability to protect this policy depended on their dominance over southern politics and national policies.  The southern rural class structure, that is, the plantation system, allowed planters to dominate the South's political economy, which then gave them disproportionate influence over national policies.  As this class structure changed during the 1950s and 1960s, however, the southern planters fell from their politically dominant position.  After exerting great influence in Congress, the Democratic Party, and national politics from about 1932 to 1960, planters began to lose political power as the Republican Party gained influence in the South and blacks gained influence in the Democratic Party.  This fall from power had important consequences for agricultural policy because the southern planters were among the most ardent supporters of supply management policy."
Statues of children in the Antioch Church
After slavery was deemed unconstitutional in 1865, Africans and their descendants who had been forcibly brought to the states needed to find a way to make a living.  Likewise, southern planters had to figure out a new way to keep their plantations running, now that they could no longer force people to do the work for no pay.  Part of the solution reached was tenant farming and sharecropping.  "Tenant farmers in the South rented portions of land and supplied the "cultivating power (usually mules) and implements and customarily [paid] two-thirds of the seed and fertilizer costs."  With sharecropping, in contrast, the landowner "[supplied] everything used in production (including housing) except labor and [furnished] half the cost of seed and fertilizer."  Sharecropping looked very much like slavery, the main difference being payment in the form of a share of the crop.  Some tenants were cash tenants, who did not share their crop with the landowner, but these were far less common than sharecroppers or share tenants."

Though this system was clearly better than chattel slavery, it still afforded planters inappropriate levels of power over the laborers.  Tenants unable to pay rent wound up with "crop liens" owed to planters.  Planters could also expel tenants whenever they saw fit.  'The crop-lien system and the informality of contracts often put 'absolute control of relationships in the hands of the landlord.'"

Slave quarters for two families.
Whereas other crop harvests were mechanized in the early 1900s, cotton - the primary cash crop of the South - remained largely hand-harvested until the 1960s.  In 1960, 51% of the southern cotton crop was harvested by hand.  "As late as 1962, most southern states relied heavily on laborers to pick cotton by hand.  Control over a sufficiently large supply of labor was therefore crucial, and this need to secure labor propelled the class structure."  The affording of rights to black people interfered with such control.

The AAA of 1933 was created, at least in part, to provide financial support to southern planters.  Ironically, the Act and planters' reaction to it wound up changing the underlying class structure of the South, and undermining planters' business methods.  "Supply management policy weakened the plantation system by supplying federal subsidies that encouraged planters to replace tenants with hired workers and to mechanize."  This was in large part due to planters' unwillingness to share subsidy payments with tenants and sharecroppers, despite AAA's requirements that they do so.  Cotton "planters kept almost 90 percent of AAA payments in the early New Deal.  Planters had no obligation to share subsidy payments with hired hands.  The planters' greed, then, was ultimately their undoing.

"Though supply management policy helped to initiate the demise of the plantation system, the New Deal left the system of racial oppression and political exclusion in the South largely untouched."  As planters moved away from tenant and sharecropping labor and toward wage labor, southern blacks were pushed off of farms and moved from rural to urban areas.  The "Great Migration" to northern cities enabled blacks to gain a voice in voting - from which they were still shut out in the South through various forms of illegal but socially accepted obstruction and intimidation.  "And although northern cities were not havens of racial equality and democracy, they nonetheless provided blacks with more social and political rights and presented a much smaller threat of violence than that which blacks faced in the rural South."  Even in the South, creating urban communities allowed blacks to become more socially powerful and begin to fight back against racial oppression.

A holding pen for slaves on sale.
"The civil rights movement challenged the political elements of the plantation system that the AAA did not."  The Freedom Summer of 1964 in Mississippi, organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CRE) and focused on black voter registration in the South, increased the voting power and therefore political power of the black community.  The resulting Voting Rights Act of 1965 solidified this shift.  Presidential candidates from both parties suddenly became concerned with courting the black vote, and at least paying lip service to civil rights issues.

"In the 1950s, whites' massive resistance to racial integration enveloped the South.  This resistance was led by the planters and disrupted economic activity and developments, thereby conflicting with the interests of industry."  The civil disobedience actions of the civil rights movement met with violent and disruptive responses from whites.  Those responses (rather than the demonstrations themselves), frequently led or egged on by planters and their cronies, disrupted business and industry and fueled new resentments - and allyships.

Much strife ensued around the landmark desegregation case of Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, and the enforced desegregation of public schools that followed.  Schools that chose to shut down rather than desegregate caused economic disinvestment, leading to difficulty in opening new plants.  These disruptions put planters further at odds with the rising southern industrial class.  Blacks aligned with industry, presenting a more united opposition to planters and their way of life.

"[T]he civil rights movement played a hidden though important role in the retrenchment of supply management.  Supply management policy undermined the economic dimensions of the plantation system.  One important effect was to allow blacks to leave the rural South, which helped to create an environment conducive to the rise of the civil rights movement.  This movement for racial equality then challenged the lingering political dimensions of the plantation system as well as the political power of southern planters.  Southern politics became more inclusive, and the Democratic Party began to support civil rights more fully.  All this reduced the power of southern planters over national policies, including agricultural policy.  Thus, the transformation of the southern class structure was the underlying factor that allowed the retrenchment of supply management policy."
Discussion:

Talk about mind blown.  This chapter does an excellent job of drawing lines between agricultural policy and the civil rights movement, something I have literally never thought about before.  I am sure that historians disagree on the degree of influence of various factors in the rise of the civil rights movement, but the evidence here is compelling that agricultural policy at least played a role.

I am frustrated a bit by the tone of this chapter.  In certain passages Winders seems to fully acknowledge the utter wrongness of slavery and the decades of oppression that followed its abolition.  But he also takes a very passive tone about black people being "allowed" to leave rural lands and find their way to urban settings, and how great that ultimately was for the black community.  Let's be clear.  Black people were not "allowed" to leave farms any more than they were "allowed" to seek work as agricultural labor in the states.  They were forced in, and they were forced out again, compelled by white greed in both directions.  That they were able to rise up out the deep-seated and profound structural racism of the Jim Crow South to fight for their rights is a testament only to their own strength and courage.  They were done no favors.

A light bulb went off for me in the discussion of the movement of blacks into more urban areas between 1930 and 1960.  White flight!  I have tried to understand the process of white flight here in New Orleans; its scars are all over the city.  My own father's family moved away from the Irish Channel and to Kenner after the first black person, a tailor, purchased a house on their block.  (Mind you my family was not well-to-do - they were poor Irish and my dad was a foster kid, one of many.  And even for them, living on a block with a black homeowner was more than they could bear.)  It dawned on me in reading this chapter that in all my thinking about where the white people went and why, I hadn't thought about where the black people were coming from.  Certainly some were coming from neighborhoods with a higher concentration of black residents.  To this day, New Orleans has neighborhoods that are nearly 100 percent black.  But perhaps some were also coming, literally, from the cotton fields.  Or maybe the line was not quite that direct.  Perhaps someday I will find the time and skill to dig up the research that undoubtedly exists about the movement of black people, post-emancipation, in southern Louisiana.

Finally, I would be remiss to mention the forced desegregation of schools in the South without mentioning Ruby Bridges.  On November 14, 1960, Ruby became the first black person to attend a public school in New Orleans.  1960.  Ruby was just a baby when she was put into the desegregation spotlight, and had to be guarded by court marshals because of threats upon her baby life.  She was too young to really know what was happening.  Whether because of or despite that early experience, she grew into an incredible woman who is quite active in the New Orleans social justice community.  Incidentally, before moving to New Orleans, Ruby's family were sharecroppers in Mississippi.

An "uncredited DOJ Photographer" shot this iconic photograph.

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