Food Power Politics

The Food Story of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement

By Bobby J. Smith II

216 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 10 halftones, 2 maps

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7507-7
    Published: August 2023
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7506-0
    Published: August 2023
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7508-4
    Published: August 2023
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6040-8
    Published: August 2023

Black Food Justice

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Awards & distinctions

2024 Association for the Study of Food and Society First Book Award

Finalist, 2024 James Beard Foundation Book Award (Reference, History and Scholarship)

This book unearths a food story buried deep within the soil of American civil rights history. Drawing on archival research, interviews, and oral histories, Bobby J. Smith II re-examines the Mississippi civil rights movement as a period when activists expanded the meaning of civil rights to address food as integral to sociopolitical and economic conditions. For decades, white economic and political actors used food as a weapon against Black sharecropping communities in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, but members of these communities collaborated with activists to transform food into a tool of resistance. Today, Black youth are building a food justice movement in the Delta to continue this story, grappling with inequalities that continue to shape their lives.

Drawing on multiple disciplines including critical food studies, Black studies, history, sociology, and southern studies, Smith makes critical connections between civil rights activism and present-day food justice activism in Black communities, revealing how power struggles over food empower them to envision Black food futures in which communities have the full autonomy and capacity to imagine, design, create, and sustain a self-sufficient local food system.

About the Author

Bobby J. Smith II is assistant professor of African American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

For more information about Bobby J. Smith II, visit the Author Page.


"[Smith] shows how the struggles of the region’s Black communities laid the groundwork for the modern food justice movement. Sadly, access to fresh, unprocessed meals still elude many Black Americans today, but this little-known narrative reconstructed by Smith offers key lessons that could inform the current challenges."—Civil Eats

"Explores spaces and places often overlooked by civil rights historians . . . . Smith’s text places into perspective the long history of community organizing, direct action, and educational activism that rural and working-class Black Americans have relied on in the face of economic and social dispossession. Instead of debating the legitimacy of trickle-down activism from hyper-visible politicians and celebrities, Smith reminds us that, historically, political victories and social justice reform sprouts from the bottom up."—Ariel Lawrence, Southern Spaces

"While rooted in the historical moments of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the book connects their present-day effects to those causal threads, making Food Power Politics much more than just a history text. Indeed, the book explores the power of food to define, and it looks at the negotiation of that power from multiple angles. By examining food as a tool for making meaning and wielding power, Smith opens up the historical narratives as windows into epistemology, one of the most significant forms of power. Smith recognizes that the power to define is at the heart of every other power struggle."—CHOICE

"Smith's pathbreaking and interdisciplinary work recovers a food focus that has often been muted in the historical retelling of the movements of the civil rights and Black Power era. Food Power Politics provides a perspective on history, on food justice, and on the fight for civil and human rights that offers important lessons for how we understand food sovereignty."—Monica M. White, University of Wisconsin

"The civil rights movement operated on a series of registers that made it a multilayered and nuanced mass of movements. Here, Bobby Smith II examines the layer providing bodily sustenance and how food, politics, and race operated together. Food was weaponized in modes of oppression but also used to shield and protect communities as an expression of freedom. With four case studies in Mississippi’s civil rights movement, Smith underlines the power of local histories and local people to tell national structural stories while celebrating the resilience of Black folk in the wake of white supremacist tactics to literally starve Black progress."—Françoise N. Hamlin, author of Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II