The Discovery of Hunger in America

Dr. Laurie Green discusses the politics of race, hunger, and poverty in 1960s America in HI’s Faculty Fellows Seminar on Health, Well-Being, Healing
By Clare Callahan
Robert Kennedy F. Kennedy touring the Mississippi Delta
Robert F. Kennedy touring the Mississippi Delta

In 1967, Bobby Kennedy toured the Mississippi Delta and, as the story goes, “discovered” hunger in America. This is where Dr. Laurie Green’s new book project—“The Discovery of Hunger in America: The Politics of Race, Hunger, and Poverty, 1967-1977″—begins. Dr. Green’s rich and complex study looks at the politics of hunger, specifically how hunger became integrated with racial discourse, during this ten year period. Last week’s Faculty Fellows Seminar on “Health, Well-Being, Healing,” focused on an important thread in Dr. Green’s work-in-progress: the testimony by liberal doctors at the 1967 hearings held in Jackson, Mississippi by the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty. These hearings followed from Bobby Kennedy’s tour of the Mississippi Delta, the publicity around which triggered a burst of attention to hunger and malnutrition in the U.S. Addressing the impact of hunger not only on the physical body but also on brain development and mental health, Dr. Green is particularly interested in how these doctors’ testimony influenced a discourse on race and social behavior at the time. That many of the individuals who had testified at the 1967 hearings in Jackson were also voting rights activists and labor activists, many of whom had lost work as a result of the mechanization of the cotton industry, led Dr. Green to realize that the question of health was fundamental to her work on civil rights and the struggle for freedom.

Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle by Dr. Laurie Green
Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle by Dr. Laurie Green

Dr. Green’s current research emerged from two questions she had been asking while writing Battling the Plantation Mentality: Memphis and the Black Freedom Struggle, published in 2009. The first question—how does access to health and medical resources affect economic well-being?—was already present in her 2009 study, which offers an account of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike. This strike culminated in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. Green sought to show that this event was not isolated but part of an anti-poverty activism. During the period of time in which Dr. Green was carrying out research for this book, she had conducted interviews in which the subjects had talked about their being on welfare as part of a health crisis—for instance, as a result of working jobs that had left many of them injured and without worker’s compensation, or as a result of raising children with disabilities, which often caused parents to have to stop working in order to care for their children. The issue of health, in other words, was already an issue fundamental to the conditions that led to the sanitation workers’ strike, and the significance of health to the freedom struggle began to increase for Dr. Green after Battling the Plantation was published.

The second question—what is the relationship between the civil rights movement and health?—that informs Dr. Green’s current research, emerged from her study of the community health movement and the development of community health clinics that marked the late 1960s. While pursuing this question, Dr. Green discovered records belonging to the Memphis Area Project – South (MAP-South), an anti-poverty community organization, coordinated around principles of black self-determination. These records revealed a collaboration between the organization and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to address hunger and malnutrition in Memphis. This research became the subject of her essay, “Saving Babies in Memphis: The Politics of Race, Health, and Hunger during the War on Poverty.” The  MAP-South/St. Jude’s collaboration later became the basis for the Special Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC), a federal program that aids women and children in obtaining the food they need to safeguard their health.

This connection between the grassroots activism related to ending hunger and malnutrition, on the one hand, and voting and workers’ rights on the other hand, has led Dr. Green to make the argument in her current research that the politics of hunger in the 60s and 70s came out of the Civil Rights movement.

The seminar discussion circled around the idea that the story that Dr. Green has to tell about the politics of hunger in America is an assemblage of competing discourses about who the protagonist of this story is—grassroots activists or institutions? The impoverished black population in the South or the white doctors who treated them? WIC, for example, was in many ways a product of the reframing of and contestation over terms often found in racist discourse. Doctors employed the vocabulary of “apathy,” “lethargy,” and “petulance” to describe black bodies, but reframed these qualities not as essentialist but rather as symptomatic of the impact that hunger and malnutrition has on the central nervous system and on brain development. Several participants in the seminar suggested that, based on Dr. Green’s research, the story about the politics of hunger in America is a story about the self-determination that characterized the women-led grassroots activism that had a significant role in addressing hunger and food policy. Dr. Phil Barrish suggested that present in these efforts to address hunger and malnutrition was a mixed agency of black activists and white liberals. How, he asked, can we recognize the ways in which the agency of these two groups worked together?

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