EXCERPT: MLK’s Legacy on Fighting Hunger in Operation Breadbasket

In celebration Martin Luther King Jr. Day—now commonly known as King’s Day of Service—we are running an excerpt from Martin L. Deppe’s Operation Breadbasket: An Untold Story of Civil Rights in Chicago, 1966-1971. In 1966, during the Chicago Freedom Movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Dr. King created Operation Breadbasket, an organization dedicated to improving the economic conditions of black communities all across the United States. One of its important, but simple programs followed the principle “If you respect my dollar, you must respect my person.” King stated that African Americans would no longer continue to spend their money if they could not get substantial jobs. Like so many other African Americans being stripped of their rights, King was tired of only being treated equally when it came to taking his money but denying him his rights. 

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Illinois Campaign to End Hunger

In keeping with Dr. King’s vision, Ralph Abernathy introduced phase 2 of the Poor People’s Campaign at an Easter banquet in Chicago in April 1969, with the goal of ending poverty and hunger across the land. The next day Revs. Abernathy and Jackson journeyed to Montgomery, Alabama, to kick off the drive with demonstrations. Arriving home, Jesse called on Chicago and other northern cities to join in the SCLC’s drive “for economic justice, respect and an economic base for all poor people. We are going to shake this nation up, a nation that refuses to give people a job or income which they deserve and need, yet will pay farmers $30,000 and $50,000 a year not to farm, while families of seven and twelve are forced to live on $177 a month.” Chicago Breadbasket would target Illinois, specifically the state legislature in Springfield. Our sc accepted this new directive with enthusiasm, even though our role was not “steering”; rather it was to offer support and to encourage our parishioners to participate.

This was a new ball game for Chicago’s Breadbasket, which had focused on economic empowerment using pulpits and parishioners. Breadbasket had relied on the power of a financial sanction, the boycott, to force private employers to come to terms with our demands for fairness in employment, products, and services. The fight combating hunger and poverty was aimed at the public sector, by creating an informed citizenry that would join us as allies in a demand for fairness from government at all levels. To relinquish the sanction of economic withdrawal for the much less secure moral suasion was no easy transition. Enormous energy would go into this very different campaign.

Hearing that the federal government had no plans to combat hunger, Jesse declared, “We, the ministers of sclc’s Operation Breadbasket announce that hunger is much too serious a problem to be postponed as a national priority. Hunger is the most critical issue of this nation and of this state. Therefore, we cannot take the President’s lead on this matter, for it would divide us into those who can eat and those who must starve or go hungry.” Jesse indicated that fifty thousand families in Cook County and twelve thousand in wealthy
DuPage County faced hunger.

The Illinois anti-hunger drive began in late April with a walking tour of the once affluent, now depressed Kenwood neighborhood, led by Revs. Jesse Jackson and Curtis Burrell, the head of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. Followed by a stream of reporters and photographers, they interviewed residents door to door, exposing serious needs. The first of a series of statewide hunger hearings was held at a small Kenwood church. The  next day members of Breadbasket and the cuca met with several of Illinois’s eighteen black legislators to hammer out proposals to deal with the issue.

A week later in Springfield, Rev. Jackson and sixty followers met with these legislators to craft a bill, taken from Jesse’s position paper on “human subsidy.” Jesse recognized that legislators were easily led to vote for subsidies for businesses wanting protection. He envisioned transferring this concept to people, offering an alternative to the degrading system of welfare handouts.

The recommended legislation proposed declaring hunger a disaster; pronouncing slums illegal; replacing “welfare” with a decent “subsidy” (minimum wage) for all people; removing the means test to end abusive and embarrassing disclosures of personal finances; abolishing the food stamp system; and establishing emergency job training.

State senator Richard Newhouse stated that a “subsidy of human beings makes sense as we subsidize commercial institutions and land. Subsidy must cease to be only the aid of the affluent, but aid to all citizens, especially those in need. Illinois has the opportunity to become the first state to establish human subsidy.” This bill zeroed in on hunger and wisely let go of other SCLC goals.

Back in Chicago, Jesse announced plans for mass rallies in Springfield to support the new subsidy bill. The timing was fortuitous since the legislature was about to debate cutting back the welfare program. Referring to the Illinois House speaker, Ralph Smith, Rev. Morris commented, “While he is making that proposal, we’ll all be demonstrating for our bill that would upgrade and not downgrade the economy of the poor.”8 Jesse urged teachers, students, churches, and businesses to join this effort by going to Springfield.

The opening rally at Union Baptist Church in the capital offered a rousing start. Several black legislators spoke and joined in singing freedom songs led by the Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir. Jesse declared, “If no action is taken on our bill we’re going to hit those highways next week marching to Springfield.” The crowd sang out, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,” adding, “ain’t gonna let Governor Ogilvie turn me around” and “ain’t gonna let Mayor Daley turn me around.”

The next day, with four thousand folks demonstrating outside, Speaker Smith withdrew his controversial bill slicing the welfare budget by $125 million and allowed it to be replaced by the human subsidy bill offered by Representative Harold Washington and colleagues. The crowd outside moved to a rally at the Armory where, in a surprise appearance, Jackie Robinson, a baseball icon and Hall of Famer, told the crowd that Rev. Jackson was “the next Martin Luther King, Jr. If [only] some of us had the same courage as
Jesse.”

Back inside the Capitol, the Senate suspended the rules to hear Rev. Jackson, who received a standing ovation. Jesse asserted that as a Christian minister he was concerned with “the elimination of hunger. . . . Hunger knows no color line. And in our state there are many more white persons who go to bed hungry at night than there are blacks.” The problem in Illinois is not money, but priorities, he said. “The federal government pays into Illinois $97 million annually to farmers for not growing food and only sends in $6 million for relief of the needy. Now it’s time to reverse the process.” Then Jesse moved to the heart: “The biggest problem for you to face is the need to change your attitudes. You look upon help given the farmers as a ‘subsidy’ and yet you call aid to the poor and disadvantaged ‘relief.’ The people need subsidy not stigmatization.” Jesse’s remarks were warmly received, and debate resumed on the human subsidy bill though no action was taken that day.

At the next Saturday Breadbasket, with action stalled on the subsidy bill, Jesse announced plans for a statewide caravan against hunger. Senator George McGovern declared that he had come to Chicago to support “the young civil rights leader” and to “underscore the importance of ending hunger in this rich country. We have a twin burden on our back and it’s the Vietnam war and hunger. . . . the U.S. has got to stop killing Asians and start feeding its millions of poor. . . . it should choose a federal budget of life and not one of death.” Summing up the excitement of the week’s events in Springfield, Representative Corneal Davis told the crowd that Jesse had accomplished in three hours what black legislators had been attempting for eighteen years. He called Ralph Smith’s withdrawal of the welfare bill an “unheard of thing. . . . Never in all my 27 years in the legislature have I seen a Speaker of the House back down on his own bill.”

Two days later Jesse was in Washington, D.C., addressing a group of black entrepreneurs. He said that it’s not enough to be on “the man’s payroll at a high salary because this won’t buy individual freedom” and decried the “trend of using blacks as fronts to perpetuate white economic colonialism.” With some foresight Jesse predicted that within a decade 25 percent of the workforce the hunger campaign could be producing 75 percent of the goods, causing an ever-larger pool of unskilled, unemployed people.

A planned meeting in Springfield between Governor Richard Ogilvie, labor leaders, and Rev. Jackson was aborted when Ogilvie refused to include Jesse in the session. Apparently, the governor did not want to appear to be buckling to the campaign. Also, Ogilvie sought support for a new state income tax while Jesse insisted that his support was contingent upon earmarked funds for hunger. Looking at this impasse Jesse declared that the governor could not meet with the alliance because it “was politically dangerous for him. It’s a new political ball game now.” Later, in a strategy session of allies, Jesse announced that the campaign would continue “until the hunger for food of every child in  the state, black or white, is satisfied.”

At the next Saturday Breadbasket, Adlai Stevenson III indicated that, contrary to rumors, the state was solvent and had $300 million set aside with $100 million available immediately:

There is something wrong, very wrong with our priorities when we keep
more than $7 million in an agricultural pension fund, another $1.8 million to
pay for county fairs, another $1 million to take care of race horses in Illinois
and another $90 million sitting year in and year out in funds earmarked for
roads but not being used for roads or anything else. Then we have only about
$286,000 for school lunches and $312.24 for milk for school children. . . . We
ought to and we could put an end to hunger in this state. . . . You keep the
pressure up to end hunger. Stay on the case, Jesse.

With a totally different take from Stevenson, Mayor Daley refused even to meet with the campaign leaders, sending his deputies. At the meeting Jesse requested that the mayor help persuade Governor Ogilvie to support the human subsidy bill and a breakfast/lunch program for all schoolchildren. Jesse also called for a state income tax of 6–8 percent on corporations and earmarking moneys for hunger and education. While unrealistic, these goals were meant to alert the mayor and his deputies to the gravity of the situation. Jesse urged better communication between the mayor and the black community. Still, the Breadbasket–coalition team could get no word on a definite meeting with Daley. Over the coming days Rev. Morris and Willie Barrow led meticulous organizing for a downstate caravan to build support for the human subsidy bill.

The downstate motorcade began on June 12 in Rockford with local leaders taking Breadbasket people through some poverty areas. One visitor described the scenes as “unbelievable and inhumane.” That evening, in a high school under a huge sign, “Hunger Is a Hurtin’ Thing,” more than eight hundred people, mostly local residents, politicians, and journalists, listened to personal stories of poverty from both black and white people. A twenty-three-year-old pregnant woman told of pleading unsuccessfully with city officials to help her find a place to live. A mother of five told of surviving on a welfare check of $228 a month. “If it weren’t for my family and friends giving us something, we’d starve.” A mother of seven with a blind husband related how they would eat one chicken over an entire week. “We just can’t live. We need more money.”

Breadbasket’s musicians gave a soothing touch to an emotional session. Then it was back to Chicago for Saturday Breadbasket. At the morning rally Senator Charles Percy reversed his public position and came out in support of the campaign. “It’s unthinkable to allow hunger to exist in America when we are approaching a trillion dollar economy. Many in Congress say we can’t afford to alleviate the hunger problem now, but I say they can do it and have got to do it now.” He told of his own mother being on welfare in the Great Depression and promised to urge Congress to “pay not a penny to farmers over a $20,000 limit” and to utilize the saved funds for food programs. Percy commended Breadbasket and Jesse, saying, “You are helping to fulfill the dream of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and today as a result of your work, none can say that hunger and malnutrition don’t exist.”

A week later the caravan arrived in East St. Louis. Walking through blighted areas Rev. Jackson and his followers were shocked by “the maze of broken down shacks, outhouses, junk piles and train trestles,” the “wide ravines of polluted water, discarded lumber, and refuse” in “this bleak housing area,” as described by Faith Christmas, a Defender staff writer who accompanied the tour. Rev. Riddick exclaimed, “This is East of Eden, south of freedom, and a slum city beyond the Gateway Arch.” A mother of three told Jesse her welfare check of $125 went for food stamps, rent for a three-room house barely standing, and basic necessities. “I just try to make out with what I get, but sometimes I don’t have anything to feed my kids.” A disabled World War II veteran opened his two-room shack to the touring group and said his $105 monthly pension check meant he often went hungry. Other mindboggling stories were shared that evening at the hunger hearing at Pilgrim
cme Church.

After a two-day tour of depressed Cairo, Illinois, the caravan pulled into Springfield. Several thousand people, black and white, rallied outside the Capitol as Jesse taped a copy of the human subsidy bill to the building’s doors. At almost the same time inside, the House of Representatives adopted the bill, sending it to the Senate. Later, Jesse addressed six thousand cheering supporters: “We are here to challenge the governor and the state legislature to feed its poor.”

Breadbasket office volunteer Hermene Hartman cut classes at Loop College to join the rally in Springfield. At one point Hermene noticed National Guard the hunger campaign troops standing on rooftops, holding rifles aimed at the crowd. She remembers becoming quite frightened and letting out a cry. “Jesse grabbed my hand and stopped the line and made us get on our knees and pray. I was scared to death. He gave me a real lesson in leadership. And that was that you don’t lead with fear, from the front of the line. It was also a real lesson in nonviolent practice.” When they resumed the march, Jesse asked her, “Are you still scared?” Hermene replied, “No.”

Back in East St. Louis, Jesse testified to Senator McGovern’s Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. He urged that federal subsidies given to Illinois farmers not to grow food should be used, instead, to feed the hungry, and surplus crops should be distributed to the needy. Jesse noted that Illinois botched its chance for $6 million for school lunches because of a failure to match the federal grant, leaving Cook County with meals for only a small portion of its poverty-level children. Jesse called for the elimination of the means test and praised the Black Panther Party for initiating the “most creative and revolutionary food program where thousands of hungry children are fed. The only prerequisite for the Panthers program is that the child be hungry, and no one needs to be examined and his stomach x-rayed to find out if he’s really hungry.” Jesse again challenged Illinois’s governor to support the subsidy bill. Senators McGovern and Percy commended him for “arousing and alerting America to the hunger crisis.” Percy promised to share Jesse’s statement with his colleagues in Congress, and McGovern hoped Congress
would authorize a billion dollars for food stamps.

After two weeks crisscrossing the state, the Breadbasket troops returned to Chicago. While the band of brothers and sisters was weary, we were all pleased with the positive responses from the hearings, conversations, crowds, town mayors, and newspaper coverage in and beyond Illinois. Most encouraging was passage of the human subsidy bill in the Illinois House. Dr. King would have been proud of Chicago Breadbasket’s trailblazing drive to keep alive his dream of the Poor People’s Campaign. Touched by the extent of the hunger problem, Edith Lovejoy Pierce, a well-regarded poet from Evanston, penned “Hidden Hunger”:

I chew the hidden hunger, taste the curse
That all our dislocating days disperse
Like grit in sugar and like sand in sauce.
The hungry all about, I dine alone.
I gnaw the unrelenting chicken bone
Which is as ragged and as hard as pain.
A bowl of flowers is a center lure—
A pot in which despair has dropped its spoor:
The waxen-petaled faces of the poor.

Ratcheting up pressure on the Senate to pass the subsidy bill, Rev. Jackson announced statewide demonstrations, saying that we would “go to schools in poverty areas where we know children are hungry and can’t learn abstract numbers on an empty stomach. A school will have the choice of watching us picket and protest, or feeding the children. Police and jail will not stop us.”

With representatives from fifteen Illinois cities at his side, Jesse promised that  Breadbasket would start a free breakfast program in churches. He challenged the governor not to “play politics with hunger.”

In August, Rev. Jackson attacked President Nixon’s recently announced welfare reform because of its “contempt for the poor.” Jesse rejected Nixon’s premise that welfare recipients do not desire to work and called for a Marshalllike Plan to counter the “vicious triangle that locks people in poverty: houses, jobs, and schools. . . . We do not need in this nation a redistribution of welfare stations; we need a redistribution of wealth.”

In Springfield, facing stiff opposition, Breadbasket ally Representative Robert Mann offered a watered-down bill subsidizing school lunches at a price tag of $5.4 million. Even with the support of all eighteen black legislators, the compromise was a devastating setback for the human subsidy bill that had passed the House. The substitute bill was adopted and signed into law by Governor Richard Ogilvie on August 19. Jesse put the best face possible on this limited victory. “In a time when the nation, including the President is cutting back on the needs of hungry people, Governor Ogilvie has taken a humane and farsighted step for the hungry children of this state.” From Atlanta, Rev. Abernathy declared, “Illinois has taken a step toward significant achievement. Perhaps the Governor is learning that it is not the presence of the military, but the absence of hunger that can make Illinois a great state. I hope President Nixon takes notice of such moral leadership exerted in Illinois.”

Rev. Jackson made it clear that the new program fell short of the mark, saying, “Many hungry people are preschool age and adults not covered by this bill. We still look to Governor Ogilvie to take additional steps to feed the hungry of this state, 60 percent of whom are white.” Jesse urged that hunger in Illinois be declared a disaster and that the federal government work with the state to raise the subsidy level for all people and to develop job training for the poor and hungry.

The anti-hunger campaign took Breadbasket beyond the power of the pulpit, which had served so well in negotiating covenants. Poor people were a powerless and unstable constituency. In this new environment Breadbasket relied on moral suasion buttressed by personal testimonies in public hearings. In addition, the war in Vietnam exposed the grim truth that guns and butter, including bread for the poor, were more than the American people would tolerate. Viewed in this light, the victory of free school lunches was a remarkable, if partial, achievement.

Inaugurating Free Breakfasts

Just as Governor Ogilvie was signing the bill authorizing school lunches, Operation Breadbasket initiated free breakfasts at two South Side churches, picking up on the Black Panthers’ West Side program, which was feeding a thousand children a week by their count. As of October, two thousand people were being fed weekly at the Breadbasket sites, and three additional churches were added. Rev. Morris declared at Saturday Breadbasket, “It is not enough that our efforts during the summer helped get a free lunch program and forced the withdrawal of a bill that would cut welfare payments by $125 million. Hunger is still prevalent across the state and we must continue our fight to eliminate this injustice. . . . We have to go back on the road to seek free breakfast programs for every needy child in the state.”

“Back on the road” included downstate Cairo. Rev. Barrow announced Operation Lift for Cairo, declaring, “Black people are guaranteed to starve in Cairo, Illinois, now that they have been cut off from food and medical services.” She asked for donations of children’s clothing, food, and medical supplies to help alleviate the suffering, which was due in part to a seven-month boycott of downtown businesses. The contact person for donations was Alice Tregay, a Breadbasket regular. In the earlier A&P “Don’t Buy” campaign, Tregay was the lone female picket captain, and she made it almost a family affair by bringing several family members along to picket a South Side A&P store. She soon became a valued Breadbasket staff person coordinating political education classes.

One Saturday Breadbasket climaxed with three great saxophonists—Cannonball Adderley, Gene “Jug” Ammons, and Breadbasket’s Ben Branch—along with Cannonball’s quintet and the Breadbasket Orchestra offering a “soul mass” of sound. Their playing of “Red Top” was a stirring highlight of what Jesse called a “Black expression of our thing.”

Breadbasket’s campaign forced the hunger issue onto the national agenda. While Senator Percy managed to secure a vote continuing the Senate Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, he admitted at Saturday Breadbasket in early November that more was needed to alert the nation to “the catastrophe” facing hungry folks across America.31 A very reluctant White House held a food conference in December with speakers blaming Congress for America’s hunger. Rev. Jackson, a panelist, charged that there was something wrong with a nation that sends three men to the moon who bring back two boxes of rocks at the cost of $25 billion, but will not spend $5 billion to feed hungry people on planet earth.32 Jesse criticized the conference as stacked and unrepresentative of the poor. Fannie Lou Hamer of Mississippi refused to attend “another conference” and instead brought poor people into the halls of the Capitol. An American Friends Service Committee report documented that federal food programs were reaching less than half
of those in need. While the White House and Congress took quite a rap, the  conference helped expose the shameful reality of hunger across the land.

This spotlight on hunger led Chicago’s wttw-tv to preempt regular programming on two evenings to present Hunger: A National Disgrace, with excerpts from the White House event, which was followed by a local response, Town Meeting: Who’s Hungry in Chicago? Other cities followed suit, and several segments were sent to the food conference staff who were preparing a summary for Congress. This was the peak of Breadbasket’s impact on hunger in the United States.

Entering 1970, Breadbasket began its seventh month of offering free meals to children and needy people at five churches weekly. The North Shore chapter supported this program with donations of money and three carloads of food per week. Volunteers came from across the city; social clubs contributed food and cash; and workshops were held on how to “make hunger illegal.” WTTW-TV ran a week-long program, To Feed the Hungry, with camera shots into Uptown and West Side ghetto apartments, contradicting the mayor’s claim that “there is no need for anyone being hungry in Chicago.”

Breadbasket Links Anti-Hunger Campaign to Health Crisis While City Hall blocked any hunger initiative, Cook County Hospital announced that overcrowding would now limit admissions to emergency cases only. Jesse suddenly saw hunger and health as issues that could be joined, and in no time he came up with an eight-point Hunger and Health Manifesto challenging the city and state “to eliminate the twin evils of hunger
and poor health care.” At Saturday Breadbasket volunteers held up placards declaring, “Full Stomachs Mean Healthy Minds.”

In his Defender column Jesse illustrated the hunger/health crisis by highlighting one neighborhood, Kenwood-Oakland, where “more than 45 of every 1,000 babies die before the second week of their lives. Seventeen of every 1,000 families are stricken by tuberculosis. This beleaguered slum is yet a hunger and health hazard, where 56,000 people live with only four doctors in the total neighborhood.” Jesse wrote that Cook County Hospital was now characterized as a “dumping ground” for black patients, who made up 85 percent of its patient load. “We call for an end to the total hunger and health crisis as a necessary step toward rebuilding a new and more human city.”

The manifesto called upon the city council to “declare hunger illegal,” offer breakfast for two hundred thousand needy children, and join with the county board to establish comprehensive medical care through neighborhood clinics. The manifesto urged Illinois to adopt an adequate minimum wage and apply for federal funds to meet hunger needs across the state, and it challenged Congress to pass human subsidy legislation. Jesse summed up, “Our choice is not between feeding the hungry or not feeding them. It is a choice between life and death for this city, this state and this nation.”

At a Saturday Breadbasket Jesse called on the city and the state to adopt “our manifesto” or come up “with one of their own.” To jump-start the action, Jesse announced an investigative tour of Cook County Hospital and visits with city aldermen. He also presented the manifesto on channel 11, prodding black politicians publicly: “There is no reason why all the black aldermen and state legislators can’t agree on this one issue of hunger, even if they haven’t agreed on one single thing before. On this, there just shouldn’t be any debate.”

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