Operation Breadbasket: How Arts and Culture Helped Foster My Political Awakening

Photo Credit: Emory University Library

I was riding around the city of Chicago last weekend when I began reminiscing about the first time I experienced the integration of the arts, culture and economic development, as well as the power of a community to fight for economic equity. The genesis for me was my participation in Operation Breadbasket on the South Side of Chicago.

Operation Breadbasket was a national movement founded in Atlanta by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It spread to Chicago from Atlanta in 1966 and was led by the Rev Jesse Jackson. Operation Breadbasket’s goals included economic empowerment and ending the discriminatory hiring practices by companies working in African-American neighborhoods.

Our Operation Breadbasket meetings were held on Saturdays. As a teenager. I was deeply affected by those three hours of classes and discussion. We learned about economic development; we were exposed to political analysis, and we learned how those issues impacted the Black community. We talked about the civil rights movement, the impact of racism, and the unjust beatings that Black people were experiencing at the hands of the Chicago police. We planned pickets, marches and voter registration drives. And we even got schooled in personal finance management!

Every meeting opened with entertainment, often by celebrity icons, such as Michael Jackson or Roberta Flack. I believe this merger of cultural performances with political and economic messages accomplished two goals—introducing the artists and opening the hearts and minds to hear the messages of the day. In creating this format, Dr. King and presented by Rev. Jesse Jackson utilized the arts, cultural traditions and rituals of both Africa and the African-American church to mobilize and mold us into civil rights warriors.

Every session left me feeling more informed, empowered and proud to be an African-American. I felt hopeful and determined that we could change our destiny. I remember returning home and sharing all my notes with my sisters and mom. I was so passionate about these gatherings that my entire family—my two sisters, my mom and my aunt—soon joined Operation Breadbasket, and we were the first family to take classes.

Thinking about that period of my life, I know I heard the empowerment messages clearer and more deeply because Roberta Flack, Michael Jackson or another fabulous celebrity had performed. The arts and culture were the gateway for my awakening activism, playing a critical role in the hearts and minds of each of us, and becoming a catalyst for change.

Today, we have many more models from which to learn or borrow ideas, such as the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School. Recently profiled on National Public Radio, the program embraces numerous cultural traditions as part of its programs to “empower youth to excel and believe in their ability to make a difference in themselves, their families, communities, country and world with hope, education and action.”

I truly believe arts and culture are the key to helping strengthen and empower communities so that they can change their destiny and change the world. As readers of Arts & Culture Connection, I encourage you to utilize your organizations to help create and build alliances that will further the goals of expanding access to the arts and lead to the development of a diverse, equitable, inclusive and just society.

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