Their salvation would be pickles.

That was the decision of a group of farmers in Sumter County, Alabama, who were struggling financially. But when they tried to purchase cucumber seeds from a local merchant, the seller refused.

The growers eventually obtained seeds, but at harvest, the area’s two pickle companies refused to buy produce from them: they were African Americans.

“The local companies did not want them as competition,” explains assistant professor Monica White, “because they had previously been able to exploit them for their labor as sharecroppers.”

White became UW–Madison’s first professor of environmental justice in 2012, a joint appointment with the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. She uncovered this story while studying how Southern black farmers organized against oppression in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Her work is bringing focus to a missing and essential piece of the civil rights narrative: the role of agriculture.

Employment for tenant farmers and sharecroppers — who rented land and homes in exchange for a portion of their harvest — dropped sharply during this period due to increased mechanization, a federal conservation initiative that paid landowners to take farmland out of production, and a decline in the cotton industry.

At the same time, despite passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, voter registration and education efforts by African Americans drew retaliation from white politicians, landowners, law enforcement, and business owners. Those who attempted to vote were fired from their jobs and evicted from their farmland and homes. Some were cut off from resources they needed to survive.

Starvation became a political weapon.

This story continues on the On Wisconsin website.