Harvesting justice, reaping the rewards of a black panther: The lost story of black farmers in Civil Rights

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A proposal by the current U.S. Administration to offer predetermined, food stamp recipients boxed food, incites the long-standing conversation around food and justice.

A part of this history is how black farmers played a critical role in feeding communities and working towards Civil Rights and black power.

Since black farms dotted the United States, food and justice intertwine the experience and activism of the African American community. From the Black Panther Party of Self Defense providing healthy breakfasts to children in Oakland to the re-emergence of community gardens in urban spaces, food is an integral part of life.

Farming as an Act of Self-Determination

Fannie Lou Hamer

After slavery, African American farmers created an interdependent system of farms to remain independent of relying on local markets. In fact, black farmers dominated much of the market since they were in charge of agricultural for 200 years.

The ability to grow their own food was critical for blacks to enterprise after slavery. However, an ongoing violent and relentless system of disenfranchisement forced farmers off of their land and a breakdown of small black communities.

Nonetheless, the decrease of farm ownership never dissuaded black farmers. In 1963, farmers in Mileston, Ms. Invited SNCC to help them register to vote.

Legendary Civil Rights icon, Fannie Lou Hamer was a sharecropper in Mississippi who used her relationships in the farming community to mobilize rural and poor blacks.

The Original Black Panther Party

In Alabama, one of the most powerful movements by rural blacks falls on the original Black Panther party, where African Americans fought for political power and economic enfranchisement through voting.

Read more about the Black Panther Party in Ark Republic’s Black Panther Study Packet

In 1965, Lowndes County in Alabama was 80% black, but all the elected seats were occupied by whites because not one black citizen was registered to vote. The disparity so severe, that it leaked into landownership and wealth. Most of the black residents in the county were sharecroppers who were grossly exploited. However they sought independence in power, even if it cost their livelihoods.

Their work to become politically enfranchised resulted in many blacks to be kicked off the land they farmed for whites causing them to live in encampments. Their struggle became a nationwide story.

The Atlantic writes:

One last stipulation was that each party had to have a logo, in part to aid the unlettered, since back then any Alabaman who could not read would cast a ballot simply by looking at the symbol appearing next to a candidate’s name. Once the party—called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization—was chartered, Cox phoned the SNCC office in Atlanta and said they needed a logo to adorn the membership cards.

1966 SNCC article on Black Panther Party in Lowndes County Alabama

In a 1966 Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) publication, a focus on the Black Panther Party in Lowndes County explained the meaning behind the symbol.

John Hulett, a then contender for one of the seats said the following:

The Black Panther is an animal that when it is pressured it moves back until it is cornered, then it comes out fighting life or death. We felt we have been pushed back long enough and that it was time for Negroes to come out and take over. As you know, the symbol of the Democratic Party is the rooster and we felt that the panther could destroy the rooster.

Indeed, blacks fought hard for their right to vote and paid deep consequences. However, the efforts of impoverished, largely illiterate black folk launched a long-lasting symbol of fierce resilience that serves as the root of the Black Panther Party of Self-Defense and the Marvel Comic, Black Panther.

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Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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