We welcome a guest post from Greta de Jong, author of You Can’t Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement. Two revolutions roiled the rural South after the mid-1960s: the political revolution wrought by the passage of civil rights legislation, and the ongoing economic revolution brought about by increasing agricultural mechanization. In You Can’t Eat Freedom, de Jong focuses on the plantation regions of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. She analyzes how social justice activists responded to mass unemployment by lobbying political leaders, initiating antipoverty projects, and forming cooperative enterprises that fostered economic and political autonomy. These efforts encountered strong opposition from free market proponents who opposed government action to solve the crisis.
In the following post de Jong offers a historical comparison between the job displacement and decline cited by white male Trump supporters and the similar displacement experienced by blacks in the mid-twentieth-century rural South.
In trying to understand the voters who support Donald Trump in this year’s election, some analysts have noted that many of Trump’s supporters are alienated white men who did not fare well in the economic transformations of the past few decades. They lost their jobs to automation and globalization, watched local small businesses struggle and eventually close, and saw their communities spiral into decline under the burdens of unemployment, poverty, drug abuse, and despair. All this at a time when the civil rights and women’s rights movements forced them to relinquish some of the privileges they had historically enjoyed as white men and allow a fairer allocation of resources to groups whose interests had long been subordinated to their own. Despite posing as an economic populist, Trump’s larger appeal to these voters is his racism and attacks on people of color. It was Trump’s denigration of Mexican immigrants, Muslims, and “political correctness” that drew the attention and cemented the support of his white male base.
Trump voters are not likely to look to African American history for help in making sense of their situation or forging solutions, but if they did they might find that they have more in common with black Americans than they thought. In the mid-twentieth century, rural communities in the South—and their predominantly black labor force—experienced processes of displacement and decline that foreshadowed those that afflicted white workers in later decades. Between 1940 and 1970, the mechanization of southern agriculture eliminated 3.7 million farm labor positions, leaving former sharecroppers without jobs, homes, or income. Restrictive policies and racial discrimination prevented many of these displaced workers from gaining access to public assistance, and efforts to attract new industries and jobs to rural poor areas were not very successful.
Large numbers of the unemployed migrated to northern cities in search of work, but others chose to remain in the places they called home. Against the arguments of those who told them their joblessness was the product of natural market forces, that they were no longer needed, and that they must accept these new realities, black southerners asserted that alternatives existed to an economic system that exploited and then discarded their labor. With help from civil rights activists who remained in the South to continue the struggle for social justice after the 1960s, displaced workers formed cooperative farms and businesses that provided employment and helped to revitalize local economies. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives reported in 1972: “Co-ops have meant survival to poor people in the rural South. They have helped people to use the resources they have—land, labor, native intelligence to build something, where they are.”
Cooperative leaders promoted this self-help model as part of a regional economic development effort aimed at solving unemployment and poverty, hoping that the federal government might support these enterprises at the same levels that it subsidized the nation’s corporate farms and businesses. Funding for cooperative development was always limited, however, and declined dramatically as conservative political leaders managed to convince a majority of Americans that government was the source of all their problems rather than the cure (often by depicting the recipients of public assistance as lazy, immoral, and mostly black). In the 1980s and 1990s, the leaders of both major political parties promoted a return to deregulated private enterprise and pursued free trade agreements that served the interests of multinational corporations more than those of working people. Displaced factory workers in the deindustrializing Midwest and Northeast were left to endure the disruptive effects of a changing economy largely on their own, unaware of the cooperative self-help experiments that had offered hope and the chance of a better life to their African American counterparts in the South.
Back in the nineteenth century, the (original) Populist leader Tom Watson exhorted white and black Americans who were struggling economically to join together against the exploitative practices of landlords, corporations, and banks. “You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings,” he told them. “You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars you both.” In the twenty-first century, many Trump voters would likely agree with Watson’s economic analysis even if they rejected his call to racial solidarity. Imagine what might happen if they were willing to accept both.
Greta de Jong is associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is author of You Can’t Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement and A Different Day: African American Struggles for Justice in Rural Louisiana, 1900-1970.