How Co-ops Helped Produce Foot Soldiers for Civil Rights

March 10, 2014

How Co-ops Helped Produce Foot Soldiers for Civil Rights

Jessica Gordon Nembhard interviewed by Carla Murphy

Opened in 1948 on one of the Carolina sea islands, the Progressive Club was a consumer co-op and
credit union that also hosted the first Citizenship School to teach southern blacks how to qualify to vote.
Photo: Facebook/Federation of Southern Cooperatives

Southern pews and pulpits weren’t the only source of people power during the long civil rights movement. So, too, were cooperative economic enterprises. These worker or consumer-owned alternatives to U.S. capitalism helped train and produce civil rights leaders from A. Philip Randolph to Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer to sitting congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.). That historical link, between the civil rights fight and alternative economic self-help, is just one of the surprising nuggets unearthed by economist and community economic development expert Jessica Gordon Nembhard in her book out this May, “Collective Courage: A History of African-American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.” Nembhard Gordon is a professor in Africana Studies at John Jay College in New York City. Very often the history of cooperative enterprise is the unwritten and undervalued story of marginalized people. She’s already writing her next three books in her head and as with this one, invites everyone now learning about co-ops for the first time to hit her up if they suddenly realize, “Ohhhh! So that’s what my grandmother was doing with the other women in the community.”

First, what is cooperative economics and how early does this practice begin among African-Americans?

As early as the mid-1700s. I actually start the book with a mutual aid society in Philadelphia that came together to help members bury their dead. Mutual aid societies were formed by people who couldn’t afford to do something important in life like bury their dead or take care of their sick. So each member would put in money, say $1 a year, and pool their resources so that they could bury their loved ones or, in another case, hire a nurse for a town that doesn’t have one.

Cooperatives take many forms, from housing co-ops to consumer-owned groceries to worker-owned pig farming. There is no individual ownership. Rather, everyone is in it together and owns together. There’re usually rules about how the money can be used and all members participate in regular study groups. That fosters democratic participation both in the co-op and the community. [And by the way,] those same people who formed that burial society later went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal church.
Many people are familiar with “Black Wall Street,” often used to describe Tulsa, Okla. or other thriving early 20th century towns. Were there co-ops in those towns, too?
Yes. In fact, some of them were actually practicing cooperative economics rather than capitalism. In one Miss. town, they organized a pig farmers co-op*, for example. And even in Tulsa with its individually-owned businesses there was still some level of unofficial economic cooperation. For example, everyone patronized the black-owned grocery store or bank so that sense of solidarity carried over.
Another example comes from W.E.B. DuBois who, all his life advocated for the cooperative model. He describes as a co-op in his 1907 book on the subject, one business founded just after the Civil War by members of the black middle-class in Baltimore. They had gotten together and bought a shipyard because the white shipyards would not employ black workers.
Let’s talk about that civil rights link. Why isn’t it more widely known?

I’ve been wondering about that, too. And in fact one of the things I found is that there’s more of a connection between black cooperatives and civil rights than there is between black cooperatives and capitalism. I think there’re a couple of reasons. In the U.S. co-ops are often linked with hippies, communism or socialism and back in the 1950s, just after the McCarthy era, black leaders knew they couldn’t talk about either and be listened to. So there was an official avoidance of the subject of co-ops. Second, there was a lot of resistance from capitalists. White unions in the late 1800s were being sabotaged and certainly blacks got the same resistance as well because co-ops gave them more economic control and power. So by necessity, even if you were involved in co-ops it had to be as clandestine as possible. And third, people, including many blacks, just wouldn’t accept civil rights if it included language about economic rights. I once heard Andrew Young give a talk at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and he said that in the ’60s, they deliberately decided not to talk about economic co-ops or economic justice but to focus on political and voting rights. It was too dangerous to talk about the former.

What’re the lessons of this newly rediscovered history for any disenfranchised group today?

I started this research 15 years ago because I was interested in community economic development strategies, especially for marginalized groups and women—not necessarily because I wanted only to focus on African-Americans. I thought I’d spend a couple of years looking at the history of blacks and move on to Native American examples or Latinos. I got stuck, I was discovering so much information! But in the African-American example, too, people today can see how a group so denigrated economically and politically and left out of the system, came together. They pooled meager resources, doubled or in some cases tripled their influence, shared both the risk and the profits and gave each other a voice and a chance to get ahead.

I also found that even if the co-op failed after a few years, there were multiple spillover effects on both individuals and the communities. All members have to learn the business, how to read the books, develop skills in accounting, in the industry, in democratic participation, social networking. In short, leadership gets developed. People went on to do better and more things like run for political office or start or run other organizations. That can happen for any group of marginalized people.
What’s next? Sounds like there’s more to be discovered.

One of the upcoming book projects I’m excited about is an anthology looking at how various subaltern groups have used co-ops. So we’ll be looking at the First Nations in Canada, Asians in Vancouver, some more on Native-Americans in the U.S., as well as Puerto Rico, too, which has a thriving co-op sector. I would love to hear from people who can offer examples of economic cooperation in their communities, even if it isn’t exactly a co-op. I’ve been speaking about co-ops for eight years and so many people come up to me after. One woman, her mom was involved in the Ladies Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. She actually sent me some materials and pictures. I’ve had people all over the country volunteer to do archival research for me. In the end I’m trying to understand the impact and effect on marginalized groups, of owning and running their own businesses and, measure that impact in quantifiable ways. I’m just trying to find as many examples as possible!

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.” –Nineteenth century Nēhilawē (Cree) proverb