Thursday, January 17

Kitchen to Classroom: "Bigger than a Hamburger"

Photo by Alfred T. Palmer, 1943. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
In a few days, the spring semester will begin here in icy Oxford. I’m excited about my Honors College class, “Eating Jim Crow: Food in the Civil Rights Movement.” We have a lot on our plates this semester (pun intended). To summarize, we’ll analyze sources exploring the relationship between food and race in the South, and students will write about segregation and desegregation in public eating places. Our primary objective is to explore the notion of food access as an American civil right.

Ella Baker in the early 1960s (photographer unknown)
Syllabus highlights include the following readings: 
* Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class to understand the social structure of the South in the early twentieth century
* an essay by University of Virginia professor Grace Elizabeth Hale to consider the historiography of segregation culture
* selections from the papers of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) to examine early examples of activism in public eating places
* Anne Moody’s memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi to consider the experiences of the civil rights generation
* legal statutes and court cases that describe the legal process by which segregation developed and then broke down over the course of the twentieth century.

We’ll have no shortage of issues to consider as we explore food and race. Throughout the twentieth century, race determined an individual's connections to food in many unsuspected ways. Race influenced the type, quantity, and quality of food most readily available for consumption and whether a person was more likely to serve or consume food in a public eating establishment (or a private club).

Anne Moody (seated at right) participates in a sit-in at Woolworth's in Jackson, Mississippi, on May 23, 1963.

Most importantly, however, as public eating places became more democratic in nature, consuming food became a political act. Excluding African Americans from downtown lunch counters paralleled exclusions from the ballot box. Lunch counter sit-in activists consciously recognized this analogy. At the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960, civil rights veteran Ella Baker famously stated, “sit-ins…are concerned with something much bigger than a hamburger.” She went on to explain that activists desired “to rid America of the scourge of racial segregation and discrimination — not only at lunch counters, but in every aspect of life.”