You Can’t Eat Freedom

Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement

By Greta de Jong

320 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 7 halftones, 3 maps, 2 tables, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-5479-9
    Published: August 2019
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-2930-8
    Published: October 2016
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-2931-5
    Published: August 2016

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Awards & distinctions

2017 Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Award, Southern Historical Association

2017 Theodore Saloutos Award, Agricultural History Society

2017 Willie Lee Rose Prize, Southern Association for Women Historians

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. Political empowerment for black southerners coincided with the transformation of southern agriculture and the displacement of thousands of former sharecroppers from the land. Focusing on the plantation regions of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, Greta de Jong 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, efforts that encountered strong opposition from free market proponents who opposed government action to solve the crisis.

Making clear the relationship between the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty, this history of rural organizing shows how responses to labor displacement in the South shaped the experiences of other Americans who were affected by mass layoffs in the late twentieth century, shedding light on a debate that continues to reverberate today.

About the Author

Greta de Jong is professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno.
For more information about Greta de Jong, visit the Author Page.


“Links issues such as mass unemployment, poverty, and racial inequality to failures in policy in the late 20th century, when deindustrialization, automation and globalization eliminated many working-class jobs.”--Nevada Today News

“One of the most important books about the black freedom struggle in a generation.”--Journal of Southern History

“A must read for scholars interested in southern history, civil rights history, or poor people’s movements. . . . Challenges what we know about the post-1965 period and proves instructive as we confront twenty-first-century problems of poverty and racial injustice.”--The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“Focusing on the Black Belt counties of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, de Jong traces the struggle for economic justice from the collapse of sharecropping through the civil rights movement to the present.”--Journal of Social History

“Beautifully written, elegantly argued, and exhaustively researched, You Can’t Eat Freedom provides a cutting-edge outlook on just how quickly it became dangerous for black southerners to struggle for economic justice in the years after the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were passed. Broadening our understanding of what constituted political action in the civil rights and antipoverty struggles, this book offers a completely fresh analysis of post-1965 rural African American social justice activism, highlighting just how inextricable political and economic justice were in activists’ vision for change.”--Annelise Orleck, Dartmouth College

“With an impressive breadth of research, You Can’t Eat Freedom takes us inside communities fighting for civil rights after 1965, looking beyond the much studied earlier period to show us how these ongoing racial struggles were contested on the ground. This book does not shy away from highlighting the prevalence of black poverty after 1965, avoiding the temptation to find silver linings in what is quite a sobering--even bleak--story. This is a nice corrective to the triumphal nature of some civil rights historiography.”--Timothy J. Minchin, coauthor of After the Dream: Black and White Southerners since 1965