Two unsung women whose power using food as a political weapon during the civil rights movement was so great it brought the ire of government agents working against them
In early 1969 Cleo Silvers and a few Black Panther Party members met at a community center laden with boxes of donated food to cook for the neighborhood children. By the end of the year, the Black Panthers would be feeding more children daily in all of their breakfast programs than the state of California was at that time.
More than a thousand miles away, Aylene Quin had spent the decade using her restaurant in McComb, Mississippi, to host secret planning meetings of civil rights leaders and organizations, feed the hungry, and cement herself as a community leader who could bring people together--physically and philosophically--over a meal.
These two women's tales, separated by a handful of years, tell the same story: how food was used by women as a potent and necessary ideological tool in both the rural south and urban north to create lasting social and political change. The leadership of these women cooking and serving food in a safe space for their communities was so powerful, the FBI resorted to coordinated extensive and often illegal means to stop the efforts of these two women, and those using similar tactics, under COINTELPRO--turning a blind eye to the firebombing of the children of a restaurant owner, destroying food intended for poor kids, and declaring a community breakfast program a major threat to public safety. But of course, it was never just about the food.
About the Author
Suzanne Cope is a writing professor at NYU who has been researching and writing about food and politics for years. Her articles have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Atlantic, and Travel & Leisure, as well as with the BBC, CNN, Buzzfeed, NPR, and more. She speaks on related topics on radio shows and podcasts, and at numerous professional and scholarly meetings. Cope lives in Brooklyn, NY.