Katrina and Genocide? Looking for Clues in Mississippi’s Past
Some who watched Hurricane Katrina’s victims literally beg government officials for food, water and shelter – and consider FEMA’s poor response genocidal – now look to parallels in the earlier days of neighboring Mississippi’s Civil Rights Movement.
IN 1962 LEFLORE COUNTY WHITES running the federal Surplus Food Program began withholding food as punishment for increased civil rights activities; food was being held back in other Mississippi Delta counties as well.
Hardliners on the county’s Board of Supervisors were determined to halt distribution of all federal food commodities to the county’s poor – of which 98 percent were black.
“To the traditional segregationist arsenal of intimidation, economic reprisal, beatings, lynching, and legal brutality, Leflore County appeared ready to add genocide. Leflore County whites, it seemed, would starve black children to death before they would allow their parents to vote,” observed Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, authors of “We Are Not Afraid.”
Most poor people, black and white, were dependent on commodities for the cheese, flour, milk, rice, beans and canned meats, critical in feeding families in Greenwood and outlying districts. The county’s decision meant that more than twenty-two thousand farm and sharecropping families would be affected – families that had relied on the commodities to make it from one cotton harvesting season to the next.
The scope of potential starvation and malnutrition did not draw attention outside of Mississippi – a news article appeared in the Jackson Press that discounted the decision as a “simple debate over regional welfare practices.”
Others declared the black families were “freeloaders” who wanted “something for nothing.” In the same year, Mississippi drew some $750 million in U. S. government funds, with millions of federal dollars going into the Delta as agricultural subsidies to cotton farmers.
There were predictions of wholesale starvation in the Delta. Mothers about to give birth were particularly concerned about the consequences. Fannie Lou Hamer pointed out it was the labor and sweat of blacks that had “made them white folks creamy rich,” and concluded: “There’s so much hate. Only God has kept the Negro sane.”
The Ku Klux Klan and the Citizens Council, working to halt any more blacks from registering to vote, pressured the county officials into stopping food distribution and locking up the commodities, in the first place.
This practice continued in the Delta as late as 1966, according to Sovereignty Commission records and oral histories. Yet, Sovereignty Commission records show continued attempts by white leaders to “prove” there was no starvation in the Delta.
As starvation worsened and word of the food cabal moved outside of Mississippi, two black students from Michigan State University, Ivanhoe Donaldson and Ben Taylor, tried to bring a pickup truck filled with food and clothing into Greenwood in December of 1962, challenging the Leflore County supervisors “strike” against federal assistance to poor people.
Coahoma County officers said the truck’s medical supplies – bandages and aspirin – were dangerous contraband and arrested the Michigan visitors. Police impounded the truck and locked the two in the city jail. The Michigan men were terrified and after several days were finally able to slip a note to Aaron Henry, who arranged for their bail.
(They were lucky. Six months earlier, attorney Bill Higgs was arrested in Coahoma County for driving an integrated vehicle. While in his cell, Higgs ran into an “overlooked” black Freedom Rider from California who was languishing in the Clarksdale jail.
Law student Dewey Peterson had been arrested during the summer of 1961 as he tried to integrate the city’s bus depot. He was held incommunicado in Clarksdale for nearly a year before Higgs found him, by chance. The black Mississippi attorney was able to get Peterson bailed out. )
The county’s attempt to use starvation against blacks unexpectedly helped COFO and SNCC become entrenched in the area, attracting more supporters among local blacks, particularly after November, when a black child died of starvation.
As Justice Department lawyers and reporters came in and toured the county, urged to do so by COFO, they found “shocking health conditions and dire shortages of milk and other staples in black homes.”
In a letter that Moses wrote to a friend back home, he told of finishing a bowl of soup and seeing a “black, leathery hand reach over from behind him and fumble for a remnant of the meal.”
National interest was aided by Harry Belafonte, who responded with a relief concert in New York City, and Dick Gregory, who chartered a plane to personally deliver emergency rations to Greenwood.
Recognition from the outside brought new optimism among SNCC workers, who worked longer days at bigger risks. Milton Hancock, a black Greenwood cab driver who hauled around freedom workers for free, was stopped by a deputy on a traffic violation and told to get out of town – “You know what happened to Emmett Till!” he was warned.
A few months later, SNCC gave out four tons of food in just one day – a record. Then four black-owned businesses in Greenwood were firebombed. Sam Block, an early voting rights advocate from the Mississippi Delta, was giving a press conference on the smoldering ruins when he was arrested and charged with “inciting a riot.”
Five days later, one hundred workers and supporters marched on Greenwood City Hall in protest, a bold demonstration for the times, stunning both white and black communities.
(Excerpt from “Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited,” by Susan Klopfer. Photo: The Leflore County Courthouse in Greenwood, Mississippi.)