Land, Resistance, and Liberation: Agricultural Cooperatives as a Vital Piece of Black History in the U.S.
Fannie Lou Hamer (center) and members of the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969. (Still captured from Fannie Lou Hamer’s America documentary, 2022).
The Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power movements are two popular reference points for Black History Month in the U.S. When we celebrate these important movements, we often think of sit-ins, boycotts, and protest marches. Less recognized, and less appreciated, is the role that agriculture has played as a strategy of Black resistance. For as long as land – stolen from Indigenous people and then worked by enslaved Africans – has been used as a means of theft and exploitation throughout US history, it has also given rise to rich forms of resistance and liberation. The land has been a space to build solidarity, to heal, to take care of one another, to meet the basic needs of Black people, and to chart a future for Black liberation.
This is why, when we talk about Black history, we must recognize and pay homage to this rich history of resistance around food and land that is an essential part of it. We must talk about the seeds that our ancestors had the vision and courage to weave into their hair before crossing the Atlantic in chains, seeds that would later germinate in provision gardens that enslaved people kept during bondage. And how these gardens would not only provide nourishment amidst deprivation, but also serve essential functions for healing, cultural preservation, and agrobiodiversity. And how these traditions would give rise to other forms of collective resistance through which land would be a basis for political formation, political education, self-determination, and freedom while preserving African agrarian traditions – including agroecological practices that continue to be essential today.
Agricultural cooperatives as a land-based strategy
With the end of slavery and Reconstruction, Black farmers and rural folk faced multiple barriers to self-sufficiency and the means to actualize their new status as freed people. The lynching of black men was often because whites wanted access to the land that Black people held. Between 1910 and 1970 when Jim Crow laws were enacted across the South, Black people lost nearly 90% of the land that they had owned. On the other hand, during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, agricultural cooperatives grew.
In the face of brutal and dehumanizing political repression, Black farmers and those who lived close to the land used agricultural cooperatives to fight for the right to participate in the economic and food systems. They created cooperatives to foster self-reliance by pooling their resources together to provide work, food, housing, education, healthcare, and child care. Cooperatives also functioned as spaces where Black people could build their political and economic power, practice freedom, radically imagine their futures, and articulate values for sustainable, self-sufficient communities.
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired” – Fannie Lou Hamer and the Freedom Farm Cooperative
Fannie Lou Hamer was a noted civil rights leader and organizer — known most for her leadership in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and protest at the 1964 Democratic Party convention in Atlantic City. But she is less known as a leader in the Black cooperative movement. She founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative in the 1960s in rural Mississippi, where Black farmers struggled for access to land and to make a living, mainly due to the white power structure’s ongoing campaign to deny the economic, social, and political rights of Black people in the U.S. South.
Rural Black farmers like Hamer understood the exploitation inherent between worker and owner in the plantation economy. She herself was poor, one of 25 children, and worked on a plantation as a cotton picker. There were days she didn’t eat, or if she did, it was very little. These conditions were what most rural Black families faced, no matter how hard they worked. She began organizing for poor Black families to pool their resources together. A pig and a garden are what she believed families needed to feed themselves. She organized poor people to form cooperatives to get their basic needs met. Landless Black farmers could access land at a low cost. Just as importantly, the cooperative would support the political foundation and movement for voting rights, one of the civil rights movement’s signature demands.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives
Cooperatives were created and led by poor people working to survive in a hostile political and economic system that exploited their labor and denied their humanity. Since 1967, the Federation for Southern Cooperatives, a current Grassroots International grantee, has helped build the collective power of these cooperatives by providing technical assistance, training, loans to purchase land, and other support systems. Its goal was to “assist rural communities to build and sustain themselves through collective action,” and to help cooperatives with the challenges they faced meeting the needs of Black farmers, poor people, and rural communities in the South. It was known as the “co-op of co-ops.”
The Federation believed that small family farmers were the backbone of the food system and American agriculture. Thus, most of the cooperatives that were members of FSC were agricultural cooperatives, led by Black farmers without land, in many cases living and working on white-owned plantations, or renting land from white owners. Black farmers were often evicted for participating in voter registration drives. When white-owned distributors refused to sell to Black farmers the fuel needed to power their farming equipment, the Federation not only helped to establish an energy cooperative of affected farmers but provided support for implementing alternatives to fossil fuels.
This example of Black collective power was a threat to the white power structure, and the Federation was the target of attacks to destabilize the organization. But the fight for self-determination and collective self-actualization was undeterred, and the Federation continued its work in the face of funders pulling their support. Black farmers and poor people have continued to organize and protect the Federation’s work to this day.
The Federation continues to support the needs of Black farmers, including supporting them to protect the land that has been in their families in the face of racist public policies and rampant land grabbing. Furthermore, it sees this work as embedded in a broader global movement, to which it actively contributes. It participates as a member of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), and of La Via Campesina North America, both partners of Grassroots International.
From formal emancipation to the ongoing struggle for real liberation, the land remains a key arena of resistance and Black power. We are proud to support and stand in solidarity with the work of the Federation and Black farmers everywhere.