The Connection Between the Civil Rights Movement and Soul Food


If you’re like many people, the phrase “soul food” can’t help but conjure up mental images of some truly glorious dishes. You picture crispy fried chicken, earthy greens seasoned with salt pork, golden cornbread, and other comforting dishes that nourish the spirit as well as the body.

Soul food stems from a cuisine with firm roots in African-American history. It came into being during the centuries of oppression African-Americans endure under slavery. It also played a uniquely iconic role in the Civil Rights Movement as well as explored in Southern Food and Civil Rights: Feeding the Revolution.

The Origins of Soul Food

During the days of American slavery, only slave owners enjoyed the privilege of consuming rich, meaty cuts like roasts and hams, leaving the leftover bits and less desirable cuts to the African slaves.

Even after slavery, most African-Americans remained incredibly poor, and they could only afford the least expensive cuts of meat. They supplemented their diet with vegetables they grew themselves and wild game from hunting and fishing. They also used their ingenuity to turn those humble ingredients into incredible dishes.

The art of taking such humble offerings and resourcefully transforming them into delicious dishes for the whole family is the heartbeat of soul food. It remains a meaningful tradition and a staple of African-American culture to this day.

A Cup of Coffee Makes History

The right to gather with friends or loved ones to enjoy a simple meal is something many of us take for granted. However, it’s important to realize that what you eat and where you eat it matters, not just on a personal level, but on a political one as well. 57 years ago, a group of African-American students sat down at the lunch counter of a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina to fight for that right.

They ordered coffee at a segregated restaurant, as an act of protest – one that would eventually result in lifting the ban on black patrons later on that same year.

History Fueled by Food

As the Civil Rights Movement continued to pick up speed, certain restaurants served as shelters for leaders and protesters. Soul food was already at the center of many meals in those households, so it was also the food that fed the people working so hard to change our nation. The following are just a couple of examples of how soul food and the Civil Rights Movement merged together to lead the way for positive social change.

Pork Chops at Paschal’s

Paschal’s restaurant offered more than just a great place to grab a delicious plate of smothered pork chops. One of the unofficial headquarters of the Atlanta Civil Rights Movement, it distinguished itself as one of the few black-owned restaurants in the area.

Brothers Robert and James Paschal not only provided a safe place for movement leaders of the time to gather but fed them for free as well. The likes of Hosea Williams, Joseph Lowery, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King Jr. all enjoyed many meals while planning their strategies.

Georgia Gilmore’s Table

Buttermilk biscuits had long been a soul food favorite for feeding the hungry because they’re hearty, inexpensive, and easy to make. Georgia Gilmore, a previous cafeteria cook from Montgomery, Alabama, lost her job after supporting the bus boycott of 1955. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself encouraged Georgia to open her own restaurant, so she turned her home into what was basically an underground supper club that often had lines out the door. Over the course of the Civil Rights Movement, she fed thousands of organizers right out of her own home kitchen.

Club from Nowhere

Eventually, Georgia Gilmore mobilized the women of Montgomery, Alabama, by organizing the Club from Nowhere. The Club specialized in selling baked goods at various local venues to help fund many aspects of the civil rights movement.

Their efforts supported the trucks and vans that helped people get around while the bus boycotts were in effect. In fact, those initiatives prospered thanks to the funds from Club to Nowhere.

As you can see, a meal is so much more than just a way to stay nourished. It also can be a cultural food way that brings people together and inspires large-scale political change. This has certainly been the case with soul food, and its imprint continues to reach across the country today.