Martin Luther King's Rice Heritage
The ancestry of Martin Luther King, Jr., the leader of the modern civil rights movement, is veiled in obscurity. Like many African-Americans whose forebears were enslaved, his genealogical roots were severed with the Middle Passage across the Atlantic.
According to family lore, his earliest forebear was Willis Wilhams, a great-grandfather, who lived in Georgia in the early 19th century. Born into captivity in 1825, Willis worked on a local plantation, eventually becoming a Baptist minister, preaching to both black and white parishioners. He served the Shiloh Baptist Church in the Penfield district of Greene County (70 miles east of Atlanta), married Lucretia Daniel, and had five children. A son, Adam Daniel, or A.D., observed his birth date on January 2, 1865, the day after the Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln. A. D. Williams followed his father's calling and during Reconstruction moved his family from the Williams' plantation to Scull Shoals, a rural community on the Oconee River. In the 1890s, A.D. joined the rural exodus to Atlanta and founded the Ebenezer Baptist Church, which grew from a small house of worship to one of the city's leading congregations.
With the support of his wife, Jennie Celeste Parks, A.D. led the incipient movement for racial justice in Atlanta and served as president of the local NAACP. Their daughter, Alberta Christine Williams, married Martin Luther King, Sr., a young preacher who eventually succeeded to the pulpit at Ebenezer. "Daddy" King, as he was known, was the son of sharecroppers in Stockbridge, Georgia. In 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in the parsonage that his parents and grandparents shared.
In the early 1800s, Georgia, where Dr. King's earliest known ancestors lived, was one of the major rice growing states. (South Carolina was the principal region.) Until supplanted by cotton, the plantation economy of the state dependd heavily on the rice harvest. The majority of the enslaved people brought to America came from West Africa, the heart of a rice growing culture going back millennia. The fabled Gold Coast, including present day Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone, was then known as the Rice Coast. Despite later claims that the rice industry in the Carolinas and Georgia was the product of European engineering genius and American invention, sophisticated rice growing techniques in West Africa were brought to the New World by enslaved farmers, tool makers, and field hands, as well as weavers (who wove rice straw into baskets), potters, and cooks. These farmers and artisans fetched a premium because of their skills in planting, harvesting, and preparing rice, and European and American slave captains sought them out. Carolina Gold - the famous rice that made South Carolina the richest of the English colonies - was a product of this trade in human suffering. Though we can't be certain, it is likely that some of Dr. King's ancestors in Georgia on both sides of his family were rice farmers or descendents of rice farmers in Africa.
Beside this connection, there are other events in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life that suggest a deep ancestral link with agriculture and the staple grain of West Africa. As a young man, on a trip north, King spent a summer working on a tobacco farm in Connecticut. Besides manual labor in the fields, he took turns working in the kitchen preparing food for the staff and students. The physical work balanced the highly intellectual nature of the young preacher's son. In New England, as he wrote his family, Martin was amazed to experience the absence of day-to-day racial prejudice and discrimination. In 1953, after completing his theological studies in Boston, he married Coretta Scott, a music student who grew up on a farm in Marion, Alabama.
Though the King family observed the modern way of eating high in animal foods, sugar, and processed fare, they continued to enjoy rice and beans, collard greens, and other "soul foods" that hearkened back to the African homeland. Frequently arrested during the civil rights struggle, Dr. King ate simply (and sometimes not at all) while in jail. Once, from his cell in Albany, he wrote a letter in which he noted how much he enjoyed the rice, peas, and cornbread the prisoners were served. His hero, Gandhi, a vegetarian and health reformer, ate brown rice as his principal food. The philosophy of civil disobedience that Gandhi espoused (originating with Thoreau, who also enjoyed rice and was primarily a vegetarian) echoed age-old teachings of ahimsa (nonviolence) rooted in Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhist philosophies of the East. The word for "peace" in the Orient is composed of ideograms for "eating rice," indicating that people intuitively knew that consuming whole grains created a peaceful mind and spirit. The civil rights movement's focus on integrating lunch counters, a flash point for racial discrimination, may also have had an ancestral resonance with Dr. King and descendents of African societies that regarded cooking, serving food, and hospitality as one of the highest arts.
In 1957, Dr. King took his first trip abroad, visiting the Independence Day ceremonies in Ghana, the heart of the traditional Rice Coast in West Africa. He extolled the cultural achievements of the region, including its farming, and the nonviolent struggle of Kwame Nkrumah, its first president, to attain freedom. Ghana, the first British colony in Africa to win independence, was soon followed by many others.
Following his success in Selma, passage of the historic Voting Rights Act, and receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King began speaking out against the war in Vietnam in 1967. His closest advisers warned him that he was diluting the civil rights agenda, but he added his powerful voice to those calling for an end to the unjust war. He especially singled out the plight of the Vietnamese rice farmers and the destruction of the rice fields of Southeast Asia.
In his sermons and speeches, Dr. King talked about "my bread in a starving land," referring to the faith that sustained his ancestors. In Dr. King's calm, thoughtful demeanor, perseverance in the face of difficulties, and eloquent expression, we feel the graceful rhythms and cadences of the African savannah and ancestral rice fields, the cradle of humanity. The heritage of this modern prophet, like many African-Americans, tragically has been lost. But if he were alive today, Dr. King might rejoice that a black woman, Condoleeza Rice (whose ancestors were almost certainly rice farmers) has become National Security Adviser to the president and a potential vice presidential candidate.
The knowledge of rice and its culture - one of Africa's greatest gifts to the New World - is a key to the future health and prosperity of America and the planet. Martin Luther King's spirit - nourished by generations of ancestors who cultivated rice and other wholesome foods and practiced the arts of peace - will continue to inspire future generations and help us realize the unfinished dream of health, happiness, and freedom for all.
Hammering Out Justice
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at the March on Washington in August 1963. (Photo by Alex Jack)
While growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, I met Dr. King on several occasions, including the March in Selma. My father, Rev. Homer A. Jack, was a social activist and worked closely with Dr. King from the Montgomery Boycott in 1955 until King's assassination in 1968. One of my earliest introductions to natural foods took place when I served as a civil rights volunteer in Mississippi in 1964. While a student at Oberlin College, we formed a group called Carpenters for Christmas over the winter holidays to rebuild the Antioch Baptist Church in Ripley The church, a simple frame structure, bad been burned down because of voter registration activity. Every day the local African-American community provided a cornucopia of traditional Southern foods, including rice and beans, black-eyed peas, sweet potatoes, collard greens, cornbread, and many other wholesome foods for our interracial group of workers It was a joyful experience and one that has continued to nurture me throughout the years - A. J.
Alex Jack, president of Amberwaves, is an author and teacher. He lives in Western Massachusetts. Email is email@example.com.
These articles are from Amberwaves, Journal of Planetary Health, Peace, and Organic Living, Issue 6.