The Civil Rights struggle went beyond marches for the right to vote or sit-ins against Separate but Equal. More than a century of severe, race-related poverty also drove desperate Black sharecroppers to take drastic measures. According to reports by segregationist state-funded spy agency the Sovereignty Commission sharecroppers were discussing raiding federal food storage facilities in Washington County in early January of 1966. Sovereignty Commission reports could prove notoriously incorrect, but they were not wrong about the squall of desperation ravaging the Delta. That same month, under the leadership of Unita Blackwell, hungry sharecroppers invaded and occupied the property of the most powerful military on the planet.
The occupation of the Greenville Air Force Base, in Mississippi, began on the morning of January 31 with four cars speeding through a gate as guards exchanged puzzled glances. Other cars soon followed, bringing blankets, mattresses, cookware, and food. More squatters arrived throughout the day. Eventually, about 70 sharecroppers and their families occupied the base, according to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Vacant prior to the incursion, the Pentagon had announced the closure of the facility for budgetary reasons and drew down staff to the point where guards could not prevent occupiers from moving into unused buildings. But this “invasion” was no act of war. Acts of war don't usually have snowmen sitting outside occupied buildings and signs saying, “Please knock before entering.” The invaders were desperate families, not soldiers, and this was a campaign against longstanding U.S. apartheid.
An especially harsh winter forced the “attack.” Impoverished sharecroppers and their families needed shelter. Months earlier, a “winter of evictions” had cast countless families out into the wilderness, and people were freezing “under damp, flour sack sheets.” Grinding, stomach-cramping poverty prevailed in the world’s wealthiest nation, and it was time to take the obscene contradiction to the national news.
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer Unita Blackwell and other leaders resorted to the plan only after receiving no response to desperate letters and calls to the U.S. Department of Defense begging to use the mothballed Greenville facility. SNCC staff worker Maria Varela, who photographed the occupation, claims organizers didn’t even ask the government to turn on the electricity or water for them. They merely needed a roof between themselves and the cold.
The SNCC and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party saw the government’s non-response as tacit approval of a federal relief system long hijacked by racists. Blackwell said the occupation was necessary.
“I feel that the federal government have proven that it don't care about poor people. Everything that we have asked for through these years has been handed down on paper. It's never been a reality. We the poor people of Mississippi is tired,” Blackwell said. “We're tired of it so we're going to build for ourselves, because we don't have a government that represents us.”
Blackwell and the sharecroppers were up against decades of corrupt federal aid programs funneling wealth to the Mississippi Delta’s white minority. The state’s wealth class had so efficiently siphoned away cash and resources that the Delta’s African American residents still occupied ancient, toiletless shacks in 1966, some of them holdovers from Pre-Civil War days of slavery. And after a slate of evictions, many occupied nothing at all.
Black Delta residents owned precious little real estate, and they were dependent upon white landowners for housing. That housing was almost always linked to employment, so when a white landowner fired a sharecropper they also evicted them. White farmers targeted Black sharecroppers who registered to vote or aided the Civil Rights Movement, and a flood of retaliatory evictions had displaced a record number of families, many with elderly and infirm members who could barely walk.
Homeless sharecroppers settled temporarily in a tent city near the Delta town of Tribbett, but Washington County welfare agents further tipped the barrel when they withheld federal aid to displaced workers in the thick of winter.
Sixty Years of Grift
Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented the New Deal in the 1930s to bring economic relief and reform to agriculture, finance, housing, and more. Particularly important to agricultural states like Mississippi, was the New Deal creation of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), to provide cash subsidies to farmers to inflate bottomed-out crop prices. Among other methods, the federal government regulated prices by paying farmers not to grow certain crops.
But in Mississippi, the beneficiaries of AAA subsidies were primarily wealthy white farmers who conspired with AAA officials to withhold aid to Black sharecroppers and landowners. While the AAA was buttressing white wealth Agriculture Stabilization & Conservation Service (ASCS) committees were funneling additional federal crop allotments, including low-interest loans, cash subsidies, and other benefits by race. In 1964, white farmers in Holmes County, MS received 85.7 percent of cotton allotments in 1964, while Black farmers got 9.5 percent, according to the Civil Rights Movement Archive, despite Black people outnumbering white residents by 2 to 1 in Holmes County.
Positions on ASCS committees are elected, but white farmers threatened or cajoled Black citizens running for committee seats. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) reported evidence of intimidation and fraud to the USDA two years prior to the 1966 base occupation, but agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman responded by imposing new elections in only a handful of communities, ensuring that Black residents would have no African-American representative on any county committee.
Intimidation and subversion had efficiently removed Mississippi sharecroppers from nearly every element of Roosevelt’s New Deal. according to retired University of Georgia history professor James Cobb, who specializes in farming policy in the American South.
“Many New Deal farm policies were virtually written by the planters,” said Cobb, speaking with unitablackwellhistory.org researchers in 2022. “Local communities controlled the agricultural adjustment program that dispensed subsidies for not planting. It was all controlled by the white power structure from the local level. They were also able to maintain control over distribution of food stamps.”
Roosevelt and his successors knew full well that Mississippi legislators from the farming class had twisted federal policy into exclusive welfare for white landowners. Some of Mississippi’s wealthiest and most powerful politicians were program beneficiaries.
One notable recipient was Mississippi Sen. James Eastland. A plantation owner and unapologetic racist, Eastland helped guarantee that New Deal benefits would not flow to qualified Black citizens. Eastland himself collected $168,524.52 in price support and acreage-reduction payments in 1967 alone.
U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-MS, was another powerful segregationist who chaired the powerful House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture. Whitten used his position to fashion 30 years of discriminatory policy, while also receiving generous aid. In a typical year in the 1960s, federal farm aid totaled $23.5 million in Whitten’s district, according to Cobb. But this windfall reached only 0.3 percent of the district’s population.
While enriching himself, Whitten voted against the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965 and 1968, and he condemned the U.S. Supreme Court's desegregation decision Brown v. Board of Education. Whitten tweaked his views on civil rights long after his fight was lost, eventually voting for the Civil Rights Act of 1991, only three years prior to his death. But Whitten and Eastland opposed expanding food stamp and other anti-poverty programs throughout their careers, even though both men represented the most impoverished state in the nation. Whitten instead concerned himself with the purported problem of social programs “destroying character” by “giving people something for nothing.” He applied that metric neither to Eastland nor himself.
While they reaped federal windfalls, white farmers typically paid their Black laborers the very minimum, if at all. Farmers and sharecroppers were supposed to be partners, but a 1962 survey “on the condition of the Negro farmer in Ruleville, Mississippi” by SNCC field workers Charles Cobb (no relation to professor James Cobb) and Charles McLaurin found rampant fraud. Farmers charged sharecroppers for all the costs of raising cotton, in addition to rent, food, and medical care, but the brunt of revenue generated by produce sales went to the white landowner.
“… [T]he cost of raising the cotton crop is paid entirely by the share-cropper,” McLaurin and Cobb wrote. “All of the cotton is sold by the plantation owner, who in turn tells the sharecropper how much the cotton was sold for. The fact that all finances are handled by the plantation owner makes the sharecropper subject to all sorts of financial chicanery.”
Farmers deducted “Social Security payments” from sharecroppers' income, even when the sharecroppers had no Social Security number. “Deductions” frequently ate away the entirety of a sharecropper’s income. One sharecropper claimed she’d harvested 20 bales of cotton that season, for a total pay of only $3.
“There are approximately 550 pounds in a bale of cotton; and the current selling price per pound of picked cotton is 34 (cents). Simple arithmetic shows that before deductions, (sharecropper) Mrs. Robbinson should have made $3,740.00,” Cobb and McLaurin wrote. “It is true that she had to split her gross with the plantation owner and pay for her yearly expenses, but as one man told us … ‘I know that she hasn’t eaten what would have come out of ten bales.’”
Planters continued to cheat sharecroppers of fair wages well into the 1970s. James Cobb notes that courts forced millionaire planter Roy Flowers to pay $50,000 in back wages after being found guilty of violating minimum wage law and fleecing sharecroppers for rent and cotton sacks. Many villains were unapologetic about their grift; Cobb claims when courts ordered two other Yazoo County landowners to repay more than $40,000 in stolen wages in 1978, the thieves threatened to report their victims for welfare fraud for their additional income.
Encroaching mechanization gave farmer's an additional edge. Designs for mechanical cotton harvesters had been evolving since the 1950s. Newer models were proving more efficient, and white farmers had the money to finance expensive machinery, partly from their generous AAA payoffs. White farmers in the late 1960s had less need for Black labor, which facilitated evicting sharecroppers over civil rights work and vote registration.
Facing the Boards
Blackwell and her cohorts sought to use the base occupation to expose corrupt local control of federal welfare and food stamp programs.
“See, if you belong to any civil rights group or participate, they tell you you can’t get a job with the poverty program, because that’s political and you know, you can’t have that,” Blackwell said. “And that’s what’s happening with the poverty program: it’s political—that’s the reason it’s not doing anything for the poor.”
One SNCC letter references SNCC Director Sam Block's efforts to feed victims of segregationist Greenwood officials. Bigots in charge of the city had purged 20,000 Black recipients from the welfare rolls “as a result of local attempts to register to vote,” despite severe health disparities among Black residents. The infant death rate among Black infants in 1966 was 34 for every 1,000 births, but 17 per 1,000 for white infants.
“It was literally a desperate situation (for Blackwell),” James Cobb told unitablackwellhistory.org. “People like Fannie Lou Hamer and Unita Blackwell were emerging as spokespeople for this class of uber-marginalized Black population in places like the Delta. They saw that some kind of action had to be taken, but with (President) Lyndon Johnson in the White House and Congress passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they sensed a greater receptivity to more direct, aggressive action on their part.”
During the base occupation, The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, speaking on behalf of the Poor People’s Conference, submitted a list of seven demands to the federal government, which included food, jobs, career training, K-12 schools, and land. More importantly, they demanded food aid distribution be removed from corrupt local boards.
“We don’t want the Mississippi county boards of supervisors to have another chance to decide whether poor people should get food,” the squatters argued. “We don’t recognize these county boards because they don’t represent us. We want the Office of Economic Opportunity and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hire poor people we say represent us. We, the poor people, want to distribute food.”
Blackwell said months later at a meeting of the Citizens Crusade Against Poverty that “The same men who pay us $3 a day and are bent on putting people off the land—that’s the people who are on the poverty committee.”
Fannie Lou Hamer, additionally, accused board members of being “the same people who were shooting at us in ‘63 and ’64.”
Rev. Arthur Thomas, a Greenville resident and director of the Delta Ministry of the National Council of Churches, went on to name-check powerful racists like Whitten, whose discriminatory policies made a mockery of New Deal and Great Society anti-poverty programs.
“I will not avoid it and say nobody is unaware of the power of Congressman Whitten in the House Subcommittee on Agriculture. Nobody is unaware of the critical power of John Stennis in the Senate and its Finance Appropriations Committee. And those are the kinds of people who are supposed to represent the poor people of Congress,” Thomas told reporters.
“Whose side are you on,” squatters demanded of President Johnson, “the poor people’s or the millionaires?”
Government’s Grim Answer
On Feb. 1, Air Force troops under the command of Major General R.W. Puryear evicted demonstrators from the base, and they took care to include Black soldiers in the removal.
The Feb. 3 edition of the New York Post castigated Puryear’s tactic, sarcastically calling the eviction “a famous victory” for the military. The Post quipped that “one major general, three colonels, two lieutenant colonels and two majors in command of 140 air policemen flown in from bases all over the country carried through the eviction with the precision and dispatch of a long-studied War College war plan.”
The paper went on to ask if “generals and colonels” had not “more urgent business” elsewhere—a biting challenge considering the U.S. had begun sending active combat units to Vietnam in 1965.
Routed squatters, still desperate, unemployed, and hungry, relocated to a community center built by University of Pennsylvania students, and then later to the Delta Ministry’s tent city. But the attention they brought to their plight at least delivered an impact. President Johnson eventually provided additional aid under “Operation Help,” athough critics complained that distribution was still too slow. Critics also complained that officials failed to set up biracial committees to quickly disburse funds to starving residents. Nevertheless, six months later, nearly 500,000 desperate and hungry people had received some form of food assistance, according to the SNCC. This, said critics, was a trifling start.
Blackwell recounts personally joining U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy on a 1967 tour of Delta poverty in her book Barefootin'. Kennedy occupied a Senate subcommittee surveying a Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM)-affiliated Head Start education program. Other senators attended, but Mississippi's own Sen. Eastland was nowhere to be found.
"Senator Kennedy went from one house to another, and I was right there with him. I saw the look on his face when he walked into those houses and saw the little children with the skinny legs and bloated stomachs and the whole thing," Blackwell wrote in her book Barefootin'. She added that he had no idea this degree of poverty was underway in the U.S., and that it looked like he was standing in a different country.
The federal government soon released funding for the Head Start program designed to supplement the education of impoverished school-age kids and help deliver preschool education and food to African American children. But reversing entrenched institutional racism would not come easily. Bigots lingered on local boards and state programs throughout the 1970s, and they continued to sabotage anti-poverty programs for years.
“Over time, these programs were destroyed by the state officials who vehemently opposed programs that encouraged the poor,” SNCC reports. “CDGM was attacked and destroyed by state officials opposed to parents taking decision-making roles in the education of their children and broader community affairs. Washington’s promise to provide job-training, employment opportunities, business development, and land retention never fully materialized, and Black people in Mississippi were left with no economic and little political power.”
James Cobb points out that the Mississippi delegation personally voted against continuing Johnson’s war on poverty and helped mire their own state in poverty well into the modern day.
“(Thanks to them) the South is remote,” Cobb said. “The population is woefully under-educated. There’s no skill and there’s just no incentive for financiers to invest significant amounts of money in an area like that with the expectation that they’ll be able to profit from it. As high minded as all these intentions were, the Delta still doesn't present a viable base for diversifying the economy.”
The problems persist, cultivated by generations of planters determined to protect their wealth at all costs. The consequence of that avarice still includes an uneducated workforce, lagging infrastructure development and a broken social safety net.
With state and county politicians stubbornly aligned against nearly half their state’s population, Blackwell set out on a new path to gain federal assistance for community development and anti-poverty projects. To travel this new path, she would have to be a member of a local delegation.
It was time to go into politics.