Leflore County cuts off surplus commodities
The plantation system worked this way in the Mississippi Delta and similarly across the South: In the winter when the land was fallow, sharecroppers borrowed from the plantation owner, usually at the plantation commissary. No cash was exchanged. They borrowed everything: food, clothing, household items like soap and brooms. This was called “furnish.” After the crop came in, the plantation owner totaled the cost of furnish and deducted that amount from payment from cotton picking due the sharecropper. This was called “settle.” Often the sharecropper found himself owing the plantation owner.
Reprisal aimed at repressing voter registration efforts took many forms. In the winter of 1962-63, the Leflore County Board of Supervisors voted to cut the federal surplus commodities program, depriving thousands of basic food for the upcoming winter. For the previous five years, the program had sent goods like meal, flour, and powdered milk to five thousand county residents, 90% of whom were Black. In the winter months, when work for sharecroppers and farm workers was scarce, the program fed an additional 22,000 people living in poverty.
This, the board hoped, would kill the voter registration effort. Instead, wrote Bob Moses, “Leflore County Blacks saw what hadn’t been clear to them before: a connection between political participation and food on their table.” Resolved to feed and enfranchise the Black community, SNCC field organizers called on their northern network and continued voter education in Leflore County throughout the harsh winter. Field organizers in Mississippi relied on supporters across the country to send food donations south.
Bob Moses wrote to northern SNCC supporters from Mississippi, “We do need the actual food. … Just this afternoon, I was sitting reading, having finished a bowl of stew, and a silent hand reached over from behind, its owner mumbling some words of apology and stumbling up with a neckbone from the plate under the bowl, one which I had discarded, which had some meat on it. The hand was back again, five seconds later, groping for the potato I had left in the bowl. I never saw the face. I didn’t look. The hand was dark, dry and wind-cracked, a man’s hand, from the cotton chopping and cotton picking. Lafayette and I got up and walked out. What the hell are you going to do when a man has to pick up a left-over potato from a bowl of stew?”
The Friends of SNCC network heeded the call from Mississippi, helping SNCC to “set up their own welfare system.” On February 11, 1963, comedian Dick Gregory chartered a plane in Chicago and sent 14,000 pounds of donated food to Greenwood. SNCC’s relationship to the Leflore County community changed through the food drives. They organizers demonstrated both that they cared deeply for the Black community and that they believed in the power of voting to change the material conditions of Blacks.
SNCC not only worked to feed Leflore County–they “linked food to the franchise,” and reached Black residents who hadn’t interacted with the organizers before. When hungry people came to the SNCC office to sign up for food, organizers educated them and encouraged them to register. Hollis Watkins, who worked on voter registration in Greenwood while the food was cut off, remembered how SNCC linked the vote to the food. They’d suggest to the hundreds of people waiting for food and clothes, “since we were all here it would be good if we just all walked down to the courthouse and registered to vote, and then come back and get the food and clothes. And then we would be in a better position to elect people that wouldn’t cut off certain things.” Food distribution efforts continued through the winter, and in March 1963 all SNCC field organizers in Mississippi went to Leflore County to help.
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (University of Illinois Press, 1994), 143-157.
Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr., Radical Equations: Math Literacy and Civil Rights (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 62-63.
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 141-160.
Interview with Hollis Watkins by Joseph Sinsheimer, Feb. 13-14, 1985, Joseph Sinsheimer Papers, Duke University.
“The Struggle for Voting Rights in Mississippi~The Early Years” Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.