After Death of Radical Mayor, Mississippi's Capital Wrestles With His Economic Vision
The first black cooperatives
“The community I grew up in, in a sense, was a co-op although we didn’t use the name,” recalls Lumumba supporter Hollis Watkins, co-founder and president of the Jackson-based movement support organization, Southern Echo, “If you needed work done on your farm before the rain came, we all stepped in. At some point you knew your turn would come.”
Hollis was born to sharecroppers in 1941, the youngest of twelve children.
After graduating college, Watkins joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC, a grassroots-based black liberation organization, that played a leading role in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
“When we talked about rights, economics was always part of the program,” Watkins recalled. “Our people understood that education and jobs and political empowerment were all intertwined.”
Jacksonite Melbah Smith, who worked with Watkins at Southern Echo, and before that with civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, grew up on her grandfather’s farm in Brandon, just fifteen miles east of downtown Jackson. She still remembers the good times—like “hog-killing time,” when the community would pool skills and tools to butcher meat. But she also remembers the hard times: “Ours was the last home in the county to get electricity or a telephone.”
Smith went on to serve as the Mississippi Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a regional nonprofit which has helped create or support more than 200 cooperatives and credit unions in 10 states, providing services and meeting needs that were going unmet.
“Cooperatives were born out of a need to bring services to underserved communities,” says Smith. Co-ops were also as a way to survive discrimination.
Smith’s grandfather collaborated with his brothers to buy farmland after emancipation. Her father, born in in 1910, grew up under the system of de facto and de jure apartheid known as Jim Crow. Under Jim Crow, not only were impossible obstacles erected to deny African Americans the vote; black farmers were also denied loans and credit from white-controlled local banks.
The first black cooperatives date back to the colonial age and “beneficial and burial societies”—founded by slaves who gathered dues covertly to pay for one another’s burials. Free blacks started insurance companies to pay for cemeteries and doctors’ bills. The first, according to a study by NAACP founder W. E. B. DuBois, was incorporated by the AME Church in Philadelphia in 1787.In his 1907 study of black economic cooperation, DuBois includes the Underground Railroad, which transported hundreds of thousands of refugees across thousands of miles, via cooperating networks of supporters, organizers, and sympathetic landowners.
After the Civil War, “freedom” for millions of formerly enslaved men and women turned on their ability to combine their means in order to purchase land and sustain themselves—or find themselves forced back into bonded labor on their former plantations.
“The wonder is not that so many, but that so few, have needed help,” DuBois quotes a chief of the federal Freedmen’s Bureau, which was set up to assist freed blacks in 1865.
Almost 100 years later, black political rights were still tied to black economic resilience. When the civil rights movement of the ‘60s started, recalcitrant whites responded by exploiting the economic vulnerability of the movement’s base.
“The Selma to Montgomery marchers couldn’t stay on sharecroppers’ land” recalls Jackson Rising supporter Wendell Paris, who helped organize the historic 1965 voting rights march that took place some 250 miles to the east of where he now lives near Jackson. Hundreds of tenant farmers were evicted for standing up for their rights.
Economic power is political power
The land of the Mississippi River Delta is famously fertile; rich enough to capitalize the early U.S. economy. But the people who have worked that land have rarely been enriched.From the founding of the United States through the Civil War to the modern era, the plantation class, with overwhelming power and resources, has fought to keep their advantage. In the civil rights era—along with lynching, firebombing, and assassination—farmers who joined the NAACP would lose their loans, and African Americans who registered to vote risked losing hard-to-come-by employment.
Wendell Paris remembers spending a week persuading an older domestic worker to register. He took the woman, named Catherine Jones, to the registrar’s office every morning, starting on a Monday.
“She’d stay there all day too afraid to sign her name.” Finally, that Thursday afternoon, she signed and by Friday morning, she’d lost her job.
“Reprisals were immediate,” Paris recalls.
Known for her role as a voting rights activist and founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Fannie Lou Hamer also started a co-op, “Freedom Farm,” to support civil rights activists punished for their work.
With Hamer, Watkins started buying clubs and selling co-ops as a way to help poor families he met through the Head Start program. “They needed some economic stability before they could even begin to change the political situation,” says Watkins.
In the 1970s, Watkins went on to manage two large farms bought by the Nation of Islam in Mississippi. “As manager of the Nation of Islam’s farms, Watkins was able to buy farming supplies in bulk and share costly farm equipment with poorer farmers. Paris was doing the same with SNCC in Alabama.
The white establishment was quick to react to the co-op push, fearing, presumably, that black coops could shift the power-balance.
“At one point we bought cows and white folks poisoned the water and killed the cows,” says Watkins.
Paris remembers finding a market in New York that would pay almost three times the price Alabama farmers could get locally for their cucumbers. The local growers’ cooperative rented a truck. On just their second run to market, state troopers pulled them over. “We asked Governor (George) Wallace why he’d stopped our truck. He said he didn’t have to tell us why. He could detain any vehicle for 72 hours,” recalled Paris.
“Seventy-two hours later, we opened the door and the entire load poured out.” The cucumbers had liquefied in the burning summer heat.
Having retired from the federation, Melbah Smith directs the Coalition for a Prosperous Mississippi, which works to change Mississippi's laws concerning cooperatives. Currently, only agricultural-based entities can incorporate in Mississippi. Any other type of cooperatives must be charted out-of-state. According to the coalition, 44 percent of the 162 non-agricultural co-ops in Mississippi report that they could not have opened their businesses had it not been set up as a co-op.
“Co-ops are part of how we grew up,” says Smith. In her view, their future is bright.
Just as cooperation worked for rural Mississippians—providing electricity or loans or social services in poor communities—so too can city dwellers use the cooperative model to pool resources and share the risk of starting a business. Cooperatives provide a way for low-income communities to build assets and create wealth, the decisive factor in narrowing the racial wealth gap. They have a strong track record of raising wages for their members too, and of staying put. Indeed, the experience of working together on an equal footing with co-workers often leads to to other sorts of civic engagement.
Which is part, no doubt, of what Smith will be telling participants at the Jackson Rising. Still not retired, she’s helping to plan the conference.
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