African American Cooperative Movement

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By Nathan Schneider:

"Twenty years ago, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, a political economist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, began to notice a hidden economy at work in African American life. Again and again, people were organizing themselves in creative forms of cooperative enterprise, democratically owned and managed by those who took part. Starting with the co-ops listed in W. E. B. Du Bois's 1907 book Economic Cooperation Among Negro Americans, she began reconstructing a history, eventually published in her 2014 book Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice, that, before, had only been told in bits and pieces, passed down through families but rarely seen as significant. There were co-ops for sharecroppers seeking better markets for their produce, co-ops for townspeople who wanted better prices for basic commodities, and cooperative communes that tried to create a new world apart from white supremacy. Where white banks wouldn't lend money, credit unions arose. These efforts faced sabotage and repression. But they were always around. "There's really no time in US history when African Americans were not doing cooperative projects," Nembhard told me."

For years, Paris traveled around the South helping black farmers hold on to their land and build wealth cooperatively. Black farmers in Louisiana weren't getting paid fairly for their sweet potatoes, so they started a sweet potato cooperative and found their own markets—in many cases up north. In Alabama, farmers who were getting a raw deal on fertilizer formed a co-op to buy it in bulk from elsewhere. Paris assisted in forming the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in 1967. Black activists during that period visited co-ops in Africa and Israel. After years of agitating for voting rights, Fannie Lou Hamer organized the Freedom Farm, a cooperative meant to secure the gains of civil rights with—to use the now-fashionable term—food sovereignty. Today, this tradition is in a period of renaissance.

"Since the Great Recession, there has been a huge amount of interest," Nembhard told me. "Everybody's figuring out that there's not a lot for them in the main economy and that they need to find some viable alternatives." Cooperatives, she has found, can thrive at the economy's margins, at the sites of market failure and exclusion. Their participant-ownership structure keeps wealth in local communities and acts as a bulwark against financial crises. "Co-ops can address almost every economic challenge we have," Nembhard said.

Elandria Williams is an organizer at the Highlander Center in Tennessee, a historic base camp for agitators and activists. (A photo of King at Highlander, with a caption describing it as a "Communist Training School," became a notorious piece of anti-civil rights propaganda.) Williams studies examples like the Emilia-Romagna region in Italy, where co-ops enjoy tax benefits and have flourished in sectors from agriculture and handicrafts to high-tech industry. Cooperatives don't just happen one business at a time; they require an infrastructure to thrive, an ecosystem. That's why she has been working to create the Southern Reparations Loan Fund, an investment vehicle for the new generation of co-ops.

"We're trying to figure out what an economy would look like, not just what enterprises look like," Williams told me. That's part of why Lumumba's election mattered so much.

"When we thought we had the mayor in Jackson, and that we were going to have a real example of a black municipality that was embracing the totality of a cooperative commonwealth, we were really excited," Nembhard told me. It encouraged black-led co-ops around the country.

For instance, followers of the late James and Grace Lee Boggs have been planting a network of cooperative enterprises on the abandoned lots of Detroit. In New York, the city government is investing $3.3 million in creating new worker cooperatives alongside the existing ones in industries like home care and catering. A cooperative security company has started in a Queens housing project. Charles and Inez Barron, longtime movement friends of Lumumba's, want to use their positions in the state assembly and the city council in New York State to set up co-ops in some of New York City's poorest neighborhoods.

Cooperatives take time, and this new economy is coming along too slowly for those who need it most. The generation of farmers that organized under the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in the 1960s and 70s is aging out of existence, and the new generation of black co-ops is still emerging. The story of black cooperatives, as much as it is one of "collective courage," in Nembhard's words, is a story of loss. The loss once came in the form of Governor George Wallace's Alabama state troopers pulling over a truck full of cucumbers until they turned to mush in the summer sun; then it was a police raid with a tank; then an aortic aneurysm." (