In May of 1968, the Poor People’s March on Washington brought some 3,000 activists to the nation’s capital for more than six weeks. The campaign, planned by Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was designed to draw attention to the deep economic injustices that plagued communities of color, despite advances in civil rights, and to present Congress with policy solutions—chief among them an economic bill of rights.
But before the march started, on April 29th, Reverend Ralph David Abernathy visited the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to talk about food and farming. And with the list of demands he carried, the Reverend brought the voice of the late Dr. King, assassinated just one month prior, and of many thousands of others—including farmers who were denied land, families who were denied food, and people who were denied dignity.
So what, exactly, did he ask of the Secretary of Agriculture?
And 50 years later—are we still asking for the same things?
“That hunger exists is a national disgrace.”
Reverend Abernathy began his testimony to the Secretary of Agriculture by calling attention to hunger and malnutrition, calling the very existence of hunger in a country like America “a national disgrace.”
He asked that the USDA provide food stamps for those who couldn’t afford them. If this sounds strange, it’s because federal nutrition programs have changed during the last five decades—and largely for the better. When food stamps (the precursor to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) were first established with the Food Stamp Act of 1964, program participants had to actually purchase their food stamps. It wasn’t until the Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 that those who needed help putting food on the table could receive these benefits at no cost.
Reverend Abernathy also asked that the government provide free and reduced-price lunches for every school child in need. Because in the spring of 1968, a national committee report found that fewer than four percent of students were receiving free or reduced-price lunches—demonstrating the extent of hunger, malnutrition and unmet need among schoolchildren across the country. Now, there is uniform eligibility and consistent funding for the National School Lunch Program, which provides about 22 million students in 100,000 schools with free or reduced-price lunches every day.
Yet despite the progress made in our federal nutrition programs, the level of hunger in the United States remains a national disgrace. About one in eight households are food insecure—meaning families don’t consistently have the money or the resources to keep food on the table—and households of color experience hunger at twice the rate of white households. The protections that federal nutrition programs do offer have come under frequent fire by the current administration, which at this moment is proposing a rule that would make it harder for unemployed and underemployed adults to qualify for SNAP.
On threats to farmers of color: “The Department has done almost nothing to help.”
The Reverend noted the decline in black-owned farms, asking the USDA to support cooperatives that could help sustain black and Mexican American farming operations in rural areas, and highlighted the widespread discrimination in the implementation of agricultural programs. He also took aim at USDA subsidies paid to agribusiness, declaring: “It is inequitable to pay large farmers huge amounts of Federal funds to grow nothing while poor people have insufficient amounts to eat.”
How much has farm policy changed since 1968? By many accounts, not enough. It’s estimated that black farmers currently make up less than two percent of all farmers in the United States, down from about 14 percent in 1920. And discriminatory practices by federal agencies got far worse before they got better. In 1999, the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit determined that the USDA had systematically denied loans and disaster payments to black farmers between 1981 and 1996, resulting in more than $1 billion in damages being awarded to farmers and their relatives. Meanwhile, agribusiness still reigns supreme. Farm policy in the 1970s directed farmers to “get big or get out,” widening the gulf between small and large farms and increasingly diverting federal subsidies to the biggest and most profitable operations.
“By all means, keep moving.”
The last 50 years haven’t brought all the policy changes needed for a food system that meets the needs of all people. Not by a long shot. But if we’re reflecting on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, we should also be indulging in his faith in humanity—in the arc of the moral universe—and acknowledging the progress we’ve made.
The 2018 farm bill, for example, provided permanent mandatory funding for programs serving beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and protected SNAP from cuts that would have taken food away from millions of people. It also included programs that support small farms and local economies and help low-income families purchase more fresh produce. And all the while, women and people of color, from Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman to Rise and Root’s Karen Washington, were getting their hands dirty and showing us what the future of food could really look like.
In Atlanta, Georgia, in April of 1960, Dr. King addressed the faculty and students of Spelman College. The address, “Keep Moving from This Mountain,” ended like this:
“If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; but by all means keep moving.”
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