Jessica Gordon Nembhard

by Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, STIR magazine no.16, January 2016

What role did co-operatives play in the US civil rights movement, and how did they support the political activities of the Black Panther Party? Jessica Gordon Nembhard explores how workplace democracy has enabled Blacks to “co-operate out of poverty” and create economic independence.

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh: In your book Collective Courage, which explores African American co-operative economic thought and practice, you argue that, “co-operatives are not just economic enterprises... they are associates of people who come to together to address a common need or want.” This solidarity dynamic was present within the housing co-ops under the “debt peonage of Jim Crow” and the co-operative-led regeneration after Hurricane Katrina. Could you talk about other examples of co-operatives as forms of solidarity?

Jessica Gordon Nembard: One of my favourite co-ops was established in the 1960s—Freedom Quilting Bee. This was a group of women quilters who were part of sharecropping families, in Alabama in the US South. Sharecropping is usually a debt peonage situation, where you have to start renting before you have a harvest (income). So the rent is on credit, in fact, you have to buy everything you need on credit and you’re buying it all from the same landowner you’re renting from—and you’re selling your harvest to the same landowner. So by the time you’re done, the landowner gets to decide the price of the harvest, gets to decide how much you owed from all the supplies advanced, and adds that to how much rent you owe for the land. Each year you get deeper and deeper into debt. And these landowners are the descendants of the plantation masters from the time of slavery, so sharecropping is a similar situation. 

The women who started Freedom Quilting Bee got encouraged because a local minister saw some of their quilts and said, “I can sell these up North.” Took them North, sold them, and brought back the money to the women. They got so excited they created a co-op to augment the sharecropping living. It turned out the co-op ended up being able to do much more than that, one because it was a women’s co-op a bunch of things followed after they started making enough money to buy land and build an actual sewing factory. So now they’re leaving the home to sew, and they need childcare. So they built up childcare and after school programmes to create family friendly and children’s services. They were making enough money that some of them were able to help their families get out of sharecropping and buy their own property. It’s also the 1960s and they’re getting very involved in Civil Rights, in particular just registering to vote, which is already a very difficult thing to do. At this time, African Americans who registered to vote in their area, such as Alabama, were being evicted by white landowners. They hadn’t even voted yet, they were just going to the courthouse to register. Often, when they returned home they would find their belongings out on the street and were barred from returning to their homes. 

The co-op had made enough money to buy 23 acres of land, to put up a factory, to run day care and an after school programme and with the extra acres, as the factory only occupied one or two acres, they were able to sell them to people who got evicted from their sharecropping land, or to loan them the land so they could farm for a little while on good terms and then go off on their own. So the co-op not only provided this augmented income for a small group of women, it then provided a stable economic income generating, asset generating collectively owned economic project that helped to do a lot of other things—in particular it gave them the independence they needed to fight for their civil rights and the economic stability they needed to take care of their families. So it’s a really exciting programme. At their height, in 1992, Freedom Quilting Bee co-operative was actually the largest employer in their town because they had all these projects. So that I would say was one thing. Of course you had to be a member of the co-op to be one of the owners-quilters, but you didn’t have to be a member to reap the benefits of all the things they were able to do in the town, and all the economic stability they were able to provide. So that would be one of my best examples of the ways co-ops create solidarity and benefit their communities.

Another example of solidarity was actually not one co-op but the creation of a regional co-op development centre. At the same time as the Freedom Quilting Bee started in 1967, the Federation of Southern Co-operatives was created, and they were founding members. That project was supported by the major traditional civil rights organisations of the 1960s [the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), the National Urban League, and SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee)]. These traditional civil rights groups were fighting for political rights and were not really talking about economic rights for pragmatic reasons. However, they realised the need to support co-op development at the grassroots. What they did was they came to together to write a proposal to the Ford Foundation to get a large grant to set up a meeting to talk about creating a regional Black co-op development centre. That money paid for the first meeting, which then founded the Federation of Southern Co-operatives (FSC)—a southern regional co-op development organisation formed by about 23 Black co-ops and the research group. At one point the FSC was helping to support about 100 co-ops through six state organisations, with the regional headquarters in Atlanta. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund still exist—last year was their 50th anniversary. 

So again, even the groups that were not explicitly thinking about economic transformation, had the notion about having to support economic justice and co-operative ownership among Blacks in terms of full liberation. They tried to create economic stability so they could continue their political activity.

JGF: The process from economic independence to political advocacy is a theme that recurs throughout the book. You talk about education within co-ops—that participating in workplace democracy gives you the ability and confidence to take other roles in public and civic life.

JGN: Exactly. Within a co-operative you are a democratic member-owner and have to understand both how the business works and how economic democracy and participatory democracy work. Most co-ops have what is called Open Book Management where everybody sees the budget and the expenses—economic inclusion creates financial transparency. All those things teach you how to conduct participatory budgeting and engage in democratic economic participation, and how to look for it in other places. So then you can become active in almost anything else as you’ve gained these skills. We’re also finding that co-ops develop leadership internally, which you can then take to other arenas. Some co-op women, for example, start being more active on their children’s PTAs at school. Other co-op members run for public office, take on leadership in other organisations, or even create new organisations. So it does give capacity building on the leadership side, it gives capacity building on a bunch of soft and hard skills for people. It gives them a place where they can learn in a safe environment with other like-minded people, but then they can go out and do other things. That’s another thing we’ve found, pretty much from the beginning, even when co-ops were more mutual aid societies, not official co-ops (before co-op law existed), these skills were developed. That was interesting for me to see that from the mutual aid societies to the co-ops we had a lot of the same characteristics and elements of building capacity and building leaders at the same time you’re building economic stability.

JGF: During the civil rights movements, many different organisations like the Black church, trade unions and other civic organisations were involved in the struggle. How significant a role did black co-ops play in supporting the Civil Rights Movement? In terms of funding it and so on?

JGN: I don’t think co-ops were particularly significant in funding the Civil Rights Movement, I think they were more significant in two ways: the ‘ideology behind’, and what I mean by ‘ideology behind’ is the notion that we don’t have to be dependent on anybody, or that we have to be independent to fight for our rights. I’m hesitating a little bit because the contradiction (everything’s a contradiction in history!) is that even though I said those major civil rights organisations actually started the only regional Black co-op development association that we have, they also, according to the claims of leaders like Andrew Young, tried not to talk about economics. They tried to keep the talk on politics, especially voting rights, because it was less controversial both within the Black community and in the outside community. 

However, behind the scenes most of the leaders and most of the organisations understood that there had to be some kind of economic justice and independence, so co-op development was more behind the scenes or underneath the political movements. So what I found interesting was not that co-ops funded the civil rights movement in terms of giving them money, but firstly that co-ops sometimes provided an independent, stable income that allowed members or their family members to be politically active and, secondly, that most of those who ended up being leaders in the long Civil Rights Movement had early exposure to co-ops.

So economic justice and co-operative activity developed leaders, leadership skills and the grassroots democracy that fuelled civil rights activity. Ella Joe Baker, for example, who became widely known for organising grassroots activists and organic leaders, and for organising Black youth as an advisor to SNCC, was a co-op organiser in the 1930s. She was also one of the founders of the Young Negroes’ Co-operative League. I argue in the book that she learned her grassroots development/democratic participation stuff from her activity in the co-op movement. Similarly, take somebody like John Lewis who became head of SNCC, his first job in the US south in the early 1960s was in co-op development, going door to door in little towns in Alabama. Here, again, he learned organising because he did co-operative organising even before becoming politically active in SNCC. 

I can keep naming famous African Americans who were also involved in the co-operative movement, like A. Philip Randolph from the 1930s and 1940s who creates and heads the first official Black independent union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. But as early as 1918 he is writing about how important co-ops are to the Black community. In addition, from the moment he establishes the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, he and the Brotherhood’s Ladies Auxiliary are pushing members to learn about consumer co-operation and co-operative economics. This is because they realised it’s not enough just to have a good middle-class job they were getting through the union, but that through pooling the resources of the race together in economic solidarity, they could help Black communities keep resources circulating among Blacks and benefiting Blacks. So even though that’s not his charge, his charge is unionisation, he still understands the role and the need for co-ops and other forms of economic justice.  

I could go on and on about the different leaders and how they’ve either been touched by or been involved in co-ops. So that’s where it turns out the really interesting story lies. What I have found by exploring the history of the Black co-op movement is a movement parallel to the Civil Rights Movement (or a silent partner to it) through leadership development and capacity building from economic justice activity. This co-op movement goes back to the 1800s with the populist movement. There was a parallel co-op movement and that’s actually when the labour union movement started. The three movements really all started together: the populist movement, the labour movement and the co-op movement —not just for Blacks but for whites, too. These movements were relatively integrated at that time, but these coalitions only lasted about 10-15 years and then white supremacist terrorism made all the efforts divide. All three movements had to divide and separate, which is unfortunate, because when you look at what they were doing at the time, they were creating a commonwealth of the solidarity economy that then got pulled apart because the capitalists and the racists didn’t want the connection between populism, labour rights and co-op ownership, and didn’t want Blacks and whites fighting together to achieve these things.

JGF: Your research makes the links between the racial co-operative economic development of African Americans and the historical experience of the Basques, who also experienced political and social oppression as a subaltern group. You talk about the ‘social cement’ between the African American co-ops and the solidarity and support they provided to African and Caribbean co-operatives. Could you talk about some of the examples?

JGN: Supporting African and Caribbean co-ops happens particularly after the 1960s, and most of what I know is from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. What’s happened is they’ve received federal and USAID money to go and help with co-operative development in Africa, and in places such as the Virgin Islands. This has enabled them to talk to agricultural groups in several different countries in Africa, and explain to them how African Americans have used agricultural co-ops. The FSC provides co-op training, they connect the Caribbean and African farmers to the kinds of support they learned in the US model, such as the support from the Federal agricultural agencies. It was also about identifying your solidarity group, and for the blacks in the US, it was often an affiliation with a church or affiliation with an existing civil rights or community organisation. 

So even though Africa has rich traditions of co-op development, they even had some socialist governments who believed in establishing co-ops, they also sometimes lost that connection because they stopped being a socialist country and everybody forgot about co-ops. This is the way the FSC is able to say, “We’re in a capitalist country but we can still do co-ops. This is how we’ve done it, you might want to do it this way. This is how we’re learning.” So it’s been interesting to see how relevant our regional organisation is to other Blacks in other countries. I was actually on a panel about Cuban agriculture and Cuban co-ops, and the Cuban agricultural co-op leaders said they were very appreciative of the advice from the Federation of Southern Co-operatives, as these were people in the same situation as the subaltern population who had been doing agricultural co-ops in Cuba. Even though they could get all kinds of advice about agricultural development and co-operatives in other places, the advice from the FSC was helpful because the contexts and experiences were so similar. So there is a role the African American co-op community can play to help support co-op development and co-op education in other countries.  

In terms of social cement, throughout African American history, Black co-ops and their members shared information, learned from each other and tried to support each other. And because they developed out of need, they often solved community problems and connected economic justice solutions to community economic challenges. In the late 1990s, my colleague Curtis Haynes at Buffalo State University and I explored how the Mondragon co-op development experience could inspire and provide a model for creating urban worker co-ops among Blacks in the US. The Mondragon Cooperative Complex has served the Basque people and their communities for almost 60 years, through worker co-op ownership and interlinked systems of co-operatives in education, finance, industrial production, agriculture, and retail. For the Basque, the sense of community and solidarity contributed to the success of their co-operative commonwealth. We have argued that African Americans can use co-operatives in similar ways, and advocate for interlocking systems of African American co-operatives throughout the US that would provide economic stability and prosperity for Blacks.

JGF: You’ve just mentioned the Populist party, co-ops and trade unions, and in the book you talk about the fact that after the Civil War co-operatives were “rejected as a strategy of labour reform” and trade unionism becomes the dominant form to struggle for economic rights within the labour movement.

JGN: It’s really after the 1880s. As I said above, the 1880s are a really powerful time when the populist movement—basically the populists were the new civil rights progressive groups at that time—and the unions and the co-ops were all promoting each other and working on similar agendas. So the unions were talking about co-op ownership to help further worker rights and worker control. It was after these movements get beaten back and segregated, which is probably by 1890, that co-ops are rejected as a strategy of labour reform. After the Civil War, which is 1865, you have the reconstruction period with a lot of civil rights laws being passed. That ends in 1877. Then the Populist, Co-op and Labour movements surface out of the ashes of Reconstruction and try to bring back some of that time period. These radical groups try, for 15 years or so, to transform the economic system as well as the political system and fail because the capitalists and the white supremacists are too strong for them. So after that the unions go their separate way and pretty much stop talking about co-ops (except for a few that remain radical). The unions become the acceptable strategy (even though they’re not really acceptable, they are more acceptable than the co-op model), and they’re also forced to be segregated because they’re only acceptable as white labour projects; and they can’t be too radical. The co-op movement becomes mostly segregated, and the Populist movement goes mostly underground.

Author of Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice and 2016 inductee into the U.S. Cooperative Hall of Fame, Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Ph.D., is a political economist and Professor of Community Justice and Social Economic Development.

Economic justice and co-operative activity developed leaders, leadership skills and the grassroots democracy that fuelled civil rights activity.


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Published in STIR magazine no.16, January 2015