Cooperative economics and civil rights don't often appear together in our history books, but they should. From the mutual aid societies that bought enslaved people's freedom to the Underground Railroad network that brought endangered blacks to the north, cooperative structures were key to evading the repression of white supremacy. And there was a vicious backlash when black co-ops threatened the status quo.
"The white economic structure depended on all of these blacks having to buy from the white store, rent from the white landowner. They were going to lose out if you did something alternatively," Jessica Gordon Nembhard, author of Collective Courage: A History of African-American Economic Thought and Practice, tells GRITtv's Laura Flanders.
In her book, Nembhard traces the forgotten history of economic cooperation and the civil rights movement. The book comes out next month. Laura Flanders sat down with her for a sneak preview.
Laura Flanders: Hi, I'm Laura Flanders. From slavery to civil rights, how did African-Americans survive repression and discrimination in this country? In a large part, it was through courage and cooperatives - as the author of an exciting new book on African-American economic experience [explains]. From the earliest days to right now today, dispossessed African-Americans pooled resources, shared skills and did together for themselves what the segregated state would not. A conference coming up in Jackson, Mississippi, called Jackson Rising, hopes to revive some of this history with a view to stimulate a new wave of solidarity economics. Our next guest will be there with her brand new book Collective Courage. She's an economist and associate professor at John Jay College. I'm very pleased to welcome Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembhard to GRITtv. Jessica, welcome.
Jessica Gordon Nembhard: Thank you.
Jessica, I'm so excited about this book, congratulations. You've come across such an incredible trove of information, I've got to ask you, where did you first trip into it? How did you get into the story?
It's actually a long story because I've been doing this for almost fifteen years now. In fact, a few years ago I said to my daughter, "Gosh, I've been working on this book for ten years," and she said, "I knew that."
Do you even remember when you first realized oh, my god, what a story?
I started thinking about it because I was working at the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, DC. We were trying to figure out family-friendly economic development policies that satisfy all the sorts of values of sharing and democracy and family-supporting and all of that kind of stuff. I realized that a friend of mine had been working on Du Bois' philosophy about cooperative economics. So, I kind of gave him a call and he reminded me that I could read his dissertation and then we talked and we decided to write an article about why cooperative economics would actually be a good economic strategy. He started to think about it before. He was thinking about it more on the theoretical side and I realized we needed more of the practice. So, I decided to look and find out if we had done any practice.
And, what'd you find?
I just kept finding. That's why it took so many years. First, I thought that it would be a two-year project and I [would] do African-American co-op and then I would look at Latino and Native American, but I couldn't get out of African-American because I kept finding new stuff. There kept being more strands, more connections and things, and I just kept finding more and more stuff.
So, tell us some of the stories. Some of the documents in your book go all the way back to slavery times.
Definitely for slavery we're talking about informal cooperative economics, not an official co-op business, but just collectively raising money to buy somebody's freedom. One person might buy themselves out and then they would save money to buy their mother or daughter, their wife or their father - that kind of thing. That level of collectivity, people even consider the Underground Railroad to be a kind of collective activity, sort of collective economics, sharing of resources, that kind of thing. The more official relationships I found were what's called mutual aid societies.
That was around funerals and doctor visits and things like that?
Yes, death, health, widows and orphans - that kind of thing - and basically, everybody puts in a certain amount every year or every month and then whoever needs it gets to take it out.
How were enslaved people actually doing that? Putting the money in? Was it allowed or just ignored by the slaveholders?
It was certainly done clandestinely. Often it wasn't done by slaves, but it would be done by freed people because slaves in some ways couldn't even bury themselves since they didn't own their own bodies. In some ways a lot of these were more once you had a freed population, but some of it would be enslaved, because sometimes they were able to make a little bit of money on the side. If you had a skill, on Sundays you could hire yourself out. Some of the families would have a tiny, little garden by their cabin so they could sell some of that. So, there was a way to make a little bit of money and they tried to pool that to help each other. But a lot of the mutual aid would be through freed people, and there were freed populations during slavery.
Going forward, what's the next big chapter or moment that you look at in the book?
The mutual aids are simultaneous with other events. Actually, organized labor then is the next group. In the 1880s - this is after the Civil War - we have a freed population and some of the unions, a lot of them, are not including blacks because they don't want the competition, and many of them would be racist, but there are some of them who see that as long as the working class is divided, they're not going to make it. So, Knights of Labor is my best example and for a ten-year period, they were doing integrated unions which were promoting co-ops, both worker co-ops and farm co-ops.
That's very interesting because in these days, there's an assumption or presumption that there is a distinction or opposition between trade unions and co-ops. Or members of trade unions often say why do I want to be a part of a co-op: it's wanting more work from me. What about the eight-hour day?
It's a shame because, for me, the histories that I found, they really co-existed and they grew up together in a lot of ways. It's going to come up again in the '30s, which still want to say something about Knights of Labor - in the '30s, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which is the first black independent union.
A. Philip Randolph
A. Philip Randolph, and never forget Halena Wilson, the president of the Ladies Auxiliary [to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters]. She and he together promoted co-ops and one of the major functions of the Ladies Auxiliary was to talk about consumer education and co-ops because, again, keeping resources/money in working-class hands. They felt that now that they had a union, they were getting sort of middle-class jobs - at least middle class for blacks, but then what else do you spend your money on? If all of your money is going out of the black community, out of working-class hands, what's the point? So, they were promoting co-ops to keep the money circulating within the black community, within [the] black working class, that kind of thing.
And then of course we get to the era of civil rights. Where for many it was really a matter of life or death, or at least, a way to have a job.
Right. Actually, that's why I call the book Collective Courage because really the whole time, it was a matter of life and death. My one last comment about the Knights of Labor: They actually had to do a lot of their work underground, clandestinely. In fact, even their integrated branches of the unions had to have white leaders because blacks weren't accepted as leaders. So, all the members were black and the leader would be white and all of the members would have to be underground - otherwise they could be lynched, mobbed, their co-ops burned, that kind of thing. Really, every group in the world has done this at every stage in history; they needed co-ops to help - especially in marginalized cases where you're left out of the mainstream, to help you either to create a living, do alternative work because you're not allowed in the mainstream work. So, throughout our history, during the '30s, during the Great Depression, with no jobs, no work, no money, no food, that was a huge proliferation and again in the '60s and '70s would have been a huge proliferation for blacks because it was both the consciousness that we need to do something for ourselves and also the actual economic need that we can't get the food that we need; we can't do the kind of farming we want; we can't get the loans, so the co-ops were really providing food, loans, work, health care - any of the things that they couldn't get or weren't getting adequately.
Now you were kind enough to talk to me right before I took a trip to Jackson, Mississippi, not so long ago for a story that's just out in Yes! Magazine. When I was there, I was lucky enough to interview people who have been a part of some of the co-ops that you've researched. The stories that they tell are so clear: when we were registering people to vote, the minute they registered to vote, they lost their jobs; what are we going to do? We had farmers who joined the NAACP and never got another loan; what are we going to do? This was a function of life and death, of need, but talk a little bit more about the marriage between the kind of self-reliance goals and the necessity of how are we going to keep a movement going? How are we going to encourage people to be a part of our movement if it results in them getting fired.
The co-ops in some ways came first because they were helping people to farm, like if you had a co-op you had a joint tractor. If anybody couldn't afford a tractor, five families or the whole church would share a tractor and then everybody would have it a different day, and you'd get the stuff done.
People talk about hog killing ...
Right, there was hog killing and pig banking, where you had a pregnant sow and then when she has her babies, you get to keep one or two and another family gets another one or two; another family gets the next pregnant sow, that kind of thing. So, you all had something to eat.
Hog birthing is much nicer than hog killing.
Right the pig banking. The loans: There were ways in lots of different communities to have these; sometimes they call them the sou-sous or revolving loans funds, that kind of thing. But again, if you cannot get an outside loan, you get loans together, so we were already doing that kind of thing. In the civil rights era, it not only became a necessity economically, but it became a necessity politically because, as you said, people were telling you that this was happening all over the place and any time you tried to assert yourselves politically - joining a civil rights organization, registering to vote - the plantation bloc, meaning the white landowners who were the old families who had been the masters in the enslavement periods, they would retaliate. And how do they retaliate? Well, many of the black farmers were actually sharecroppers. They didn't own the land they were farming; they were renters on the plantation bloc's land, so what do you do if you're mad with somebody for registering to vote: You evict them. So they would register to vote, and by the time they got back home to their farms, all of their stuff is out in the street and they don't have a farm anymore; they don't have a house. So, what do you do? Well, if you have Freedom Quilting Bee in Alberta, Alabama - Freedom Quilting Bee was actually women sharecroppers selling their quilts that they quilted in the winter, making enough money to buy twenty-three acres of land to build a sewing factory so they could produce even more quilts. Well, once their families get evicted, where do they go? They go to the 23 acres of land that the co-op owns and start to reestablish them until they start to actually be able to buy their own plot of land or get another place to farm. So the co-op is providing that. It's providing food for people who no longer have the food and that kind of independence - right? You're no longer dependent on the plantation bloc, as we call it, for your food, for your land, for your work. You can get work through the co-op.
People describe it as a way around white supremacy. Talk a bit about the nuts and bolts of this because we've now mentioned consumer co-ops, agricultural co-ops, manufacturing co-ops - they all kind of perform different functions. One of those functions is filling the gap in the market, or doing what the market won't. Talk about that part of it.
That tends to be consumer co-ops, but actually any co-ops are filling a gap. Consumer co-ops, we know: Most people are familiar with that if they are at all familiar with a co-op. A food co-op, like a grocery co-op - often the health food stores were co-ops because, again, you couldn't get affordable health food or organic food or whatever, so you joined together. All the people who want that kind of food joined together, put in their money and they can buy in bulk at a cheaper rate. Those usually start with a buying club and then you can turn that into a store or retail store and actually have a full grocery store. So, that's one way. A credit union is also a consumer co-op. It's a consumer co-op for finance. So everybody who puts five dollars or more to deposit into a credit union is a member, and you get to vote on the board of directors; you get to vote on policies. And the purpose of the credit union is not to make profits but to provide financial services, savings and members' savings as loans for people, especially people who wouldn't normally be able to get loans anywhere else.
It was also a way to keep farmland in black hands. Critical. One person I spoke to said, well, where do you think the Selma to Montgomery marchers stayed? They couldn't stay on sharecropper land. Yet we saw during this period a serious reduction of the amount of land in black hands for a lot of different reasons - people moving to the city, people moving north. The Federation of Southern Cooperatives comes up in your book, an important institution, for those who don't know what it is.
The Federation of Southern Cooperatives is now also called the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/ Land Assistance Fund because it merged with the emergency land fund which was doing specifically black land preservation. The Federation started in the '60s - '67 I believe - and actually was supported by all of the civil rights organizations as a way to promote grassroots economics development for poor blacks and any other poor people in the South - particularly to teach them about cooperatives, to help them start cooperatives and to be a regional association of cooperatives. So, they connected funding, as a nonprofit. They connected federal and private funding to co-op efforts in the South. They opened southern state associations to do more groups and they helped create hundreds of cooperatives and credit unions, mostly farm co-ops, but also some worker co-ops, and some consumer co-ops.
You go through your book; every famous name in black America speaks out about co-ops. We mentioned A. Philip Randolph, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey in a way, certainly Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, all of them. Why isn't this history better known?
Now that was my question. I was trying to figure out what happened and when I started talking about it, everybody told me black people don't do co-ops until I would lay out the story for them.
Yeah, some hippie thing. So, seriously, what did happen?
Well, the best I can piece together was a variety of things: the first thing is, how dangerous it was. Doing alternative economics - as we keep saying, that's partly why I named the book - it was dangerous, especially in the South; you could get lynched. Your stuff could get burned; you could get lynched. Why? Either because you were being too uppity for trying to do something on your own or you were challenging the white economic structure, and you weren't supposed to do that. The white economic structure actually depended on all of these blacks needing: having to buy from the white store, having to rent from the white landowner. So they were going to lose out if you went and did something alternatively, and they also lost power over you. And also, especially in the South, blacks in some counties were the majority, so the whites really could not "afford" to let that happen. There's that level. Then there's also the level of ideology, just US capitalist ideology, especially after the '50s and the McCarthy era. The other way that you got black radicals was to accuse them of communism. The threat of communism, the ideology of capitalism; it operated two ways: first with the McCarthy era, it was actually dangerous politically and economically. Cooperatives have always been associated with socialism and communism even though they actually don't have to be socialist or communist; they actually can operate with capitalism. It doesn't matter; they're considered a threat to the capitalist world.
It's quite enterprising in a sense if you think about it.
Right, it is actually private enterprise; it's just collective private enterprise. Especially by the '60s, people were so scared in the '50s that you had to only talk about political rights because that's the only thing that would get through. Even though blacks were doing all of the co-op and practice, you couldn't talk about it. There was also just the ideology in itself means that we aren't really taught about how to do cooperative economics, so people didn't really know how to do it. In fact, the other interesting thing in my research is: I think to the T, every single co-op I found started with a study group. Meaning that people realized that they were not normally taught how to do cooperative economics and they needed to teach themselves. They learned about it from somebody else, but they also found books, magazines; they connected with the larger co-op movement and read those books. They subscribed to those magazines and then they talked about it together. They had people come in; they did study tours: some black groups went up to Nova Scotia and studied with the Antigonish movement. They went to other co-ops around the country, but they weren't taught it in school; they weren't taught it in 4H. And then finally the other sad part is because co-ops are - well, actually all small businesses are challenging - we're actually finding that co-ops last longer than other small businesses, but because they're challenging, there is this underlying sense that they're too hard to do or that they'll fail. So, I did also find out that some of the common knowledge, so to speak, was about the failures - not about the successes. So, when you did talk to people they say "Oh, yeah, we tried that, but it didn't work."
So, how do you think about that in your book?
I actually talk about the failures a lot because the thing that I found was even when they were failures - I rarely call them failures because there were so many pieces that were successful and so many things that spilled over from the effort that it's really hard to call it unsuccessful. One example that even Du Bois sort of said was successful even though it had an eighteen-year run: There was a co-op, the Chesapeake Marine in Baltimore in the 1800s, right after the Civil War, it started. A group of blacks decided they needed to own their own shipyard because the white shipyards were not only not hiring blacks anymore but also wanted to ship all of the skilled black workers out of the state of Maryland. So they created their own, basically a co-op, sort of a joint stock company to hire black shiphands, black caulkers. It lasted eighteen years, and in those eighteen years, they actually hired an integrated workforce, and they integrated the union's caulkers and the stevedores union, which, remember, at the beginning in 1865 when they started, was ready to ship every black out of the state. By the time they ended, the unions were totally integrated and all of the workers went into other shipyards, and found jobs in other shipyards. So, why is that a failure? It's a failure because some people think, well, it should have lasted fifty years. It only lasted eighteen. It was also a failure because why did it go under? Because the owners of the ground upped the rent and they couldn't afford the rent anymore. Also the management wasn't that great because they didn't really understand co-op management. Meanwhile, they did all of these other things for eighteen years; they kept the business going; they integrated the unions; everybody got another job; for ten years, they gave out dividends on all shares.
There's so much we can talk about, the book is just fantastic. I really encourage people to check it out. Collective Courage. You're going to be speaking at the Jackson Rising conference, May 2nd-May 4th in Jackson, Mississippi. And I want you to jump in the present to the positive that people are actually talking about this stuff again in an exciting way. It's not just a rural phenomenon either. We haven't gotten much into the urban co-ops, but they're in your book. Ella Baker started the Young Negroes' Co-operative League in Harlem - among other people. What about the challenges, and not just the oh, they failed, but the actual challenges of running a co-op when you're already stressed, already low income; when you're already, maybe not having any experience in your community, running a business.
The real challenges I see are understanding how to run a business with other people - that democratic participation. Learning the business - everyone can learn the business - and most people do. Even working together: In some ways, we know how to work together because we worked in families and people who have been in family businesses know how to do that, but understanding really that collective, how to make sure everybody has a voice and everybody's one vote really counts, is difficult. So, we do have to talk about education, and that's why I was happy to find out about the study groups. Some of the time, they did the study groups; they started the co-ops and then didn't continue the study group, so I would say you have to continue them. Sometimes, they continued them, but didn't have all of the skills about how to run a good meeting, how to make sure all voices get heard, how to come to consensus. The great thing that's happening presently is that we're learning how to do all of that, especially the worker co-ops because in that case the workers actually own and run the company - self-managed worker co-ops - and so they've really had to put a lot of time and effort into making sure people know how to work together, how to make decisions together, that kind of thing. So, we really do know now. I mean, we probably need to get it out more to people, but we do know now how to run a good meeting, how to come to consensus, when to come to consensus, how to run by committee, that kind of stuff. So, we've come a long way and actually that side of the worker co-op movement is growing. [The] self-management side, I would say, is kind of the fastest growing part of the whole co-op movement now. So we have, I would say, especially because the economic times are so bad, we actually have a growing, exciting movement, especially among immigrant women and immigrant groups.
I was going to ask you about gender. You talk about the African-American experience, but it's pretty clear from a lot of the stories that you tell that there is also a gender aspect to it.
Yes, even though I could name men and women who promoted co-ops, when you look often at who were running them - you know - it's kind of like who's running the black churches. Even though the ministers are sort of the leaders, the women are really running them. Well, in some ways, the co-op movement was like that too. Women didn't always have the actual power as the leader, but they had the power of the person who is doing all of the work. The other piece is there were also sometimes women who were in leadership positions in black co-op movements. So, Ella Jo Baker, I'd say she cut her teeth on the co-op movement because out of college, one of her first jobs was executive director of the Young Negroes Cooperative League in Harlem. That was her headquarters, but it was a national organization, actually. She ran the organization and made speeches about the role of women in the co-op movement, and how important consumer education was. As I said, Halena Wilson. Another famous woman who was also running co-op stuff in DC was Nannie Helen Boroughs, who is much better known for the work that she's done with the Baptist convention and the DC Training School for Women. She also ran cooperative industries of DC, and I found letters in her archive from CLUSA, Cooperative League of the United States Association, which is now the National Cooperative Business Association. They were actually calling her to invite her to come speak at their meetings. This is a white organization calling a black woman in DC to come and talk to people about co-ops.
Now there is a question that W.E.B. Du Bois raises that you quote in your book. In 1907, or somewhere around then, he says that blacks in America have a chance to make a decision in the 20th century about whether they are going to participate in the competitive, individualist, capitalist system or cooperate. Now there are people - and I asked Mayor [Chowke ] Lumumba from Jackson, Mississippi, the same question - there are people who, looking at the 20th century history, would say blacks chose, African-Americans chose, for their piece of the American Dream, didn't they?
Yes and no. You might say we chose to follow the capitalist mode and some people made it. But if you look at the great majority of people, we haven't made it - and in some ways, we haven't chosen. If you look at what I found in my book, even though it's not huge, huge, numbers of people, there's definitely a clear path of activity around cooperative economics from the late 1800s all the way through. So, there was never a time when some of us weren't engaged in cooperatives. I know Du Bois actually thought also - if you read his stuff in the '40s and '50s - he says we didn't choose cooperatives, but meanwhile he was also one of the places I found in The Crisis, which he was the editor of, that's where I found my articles about him. So, he was still highlighting co-ops. We just didn't choose it as much as we wanted to. We really wanted more of a national movement; instead, it was more local activity. I think he also underestimated how dangerous it was to do it, so the fact that we even had anything going on, I think, is a triumph.
Today, we have this Jackson Rising conference coming on May 2nd. You'll be there. Tell people a little bit about what's happening in Jackson.
Jackson is another sort of grassroots, upheaval movement that [grew up] around the old mayor who just died, Chowke Lumumba. It was for trying really to put together local community-based economic activity, which we tend to call now the solidarity economy, which we got from the World Social Forum and the Brazilians. In that sense, we are talking about local, nonhierarchical ways that people cooperate economically. So it can be co-ops; it could be bartering; it can be any kind of unofficial, informal way to share or help each other out through the formal co-op ways. Mayor Lumumba, his whole plan, was to do a whole co-op economy, a co-op commonwealth in Jackson - from having some of the municipal enterprises become cooperatives to doing cooperative incubators [so] that more and more local businesses could be cooperatives as a way to address unemployment and lack of services in Jackson. Even though he's died, that momentum still seems to be going and one of the purposes of the conference is to really train people because they have this huge vision of starting all of these co-ops, and in Jackson, they need people trained. So, we're having twenty workshops on co-ops: how to start a co-op, what is a co-op, that kind of thing. The panel I am on talks more about the legacy and the history, where we move from. We have international people coming to talk about how they've used co-ops in the solidarity economy in their lives. We're looking at other cities that have started to do co-op development, particularly worker co-ops.
It's going to be very exciting. Chowke Lumumba talked about making Jackson the Mondragon of the South. Thanks so much for coming in Jessica, congratulations.
Jessica, congratulations; Collective Courage , it's out. People can get it at their bookstores now - so exciting, such an unbelievable treasure trove of stories. Can you remember when you first realized, oh, my goodness what a history here? So there was fear of physical violence, there was also fear of red baiting, right?
Right, because of the McCarthy Era, the fear of being called a communist. In fact, for African-Americans, there were very serious consequences if you were considered a communist: you really couldn't work; sometimes you were jailed. And co-ops were considered sort of socialist and communist - there was that problem - but even greater, I would say, were the ideology problems, so it's not just the red baiting, but the ideology of capitalism was so pervasive and blacks often felt like they needed to be in the mainstream, otherwise they couldn't make it. We weren't taught about how to run a co-op or what a co-op was; we weren't taught about alternatives. So, for people even thinking about what they would do, in some ways they had no models, they didn't know about the models.
Did Dr. King ever talk about co-ops?
That's a great question. I don't have anything about him talking about co-ops, but you know Ella Baker was his executive director.
I know that organizers who played a physical role in the march for jobs and freedom, some of them were also involved in Fannie Lou Hamer's co-op and had to have experience in SNCC.
John Lewis, if you read his full biography, his first job was doing co-op development in the South. And SNCC was actually a strong supporter, and actually SCLC was actually one of the groups that signed on for the beginning of the Federation of Southern Co-ops.
So you have all of these important civil rights organizations signing on in the middle-'60s and then by the mid-'70s, as you write, Fannie Lou Hamer has a very hard time in the '70s with her co-op?
What you don't understand is that they were practicing it, but they weren't talking about doing cooperative economics, especially in the '60s because they felt it would be too divisive, both within the black community because not everybody in the black community agreed with co-op development and outside of the black community, it was too dangerous to be seen as talking this commie stuff. So, they wanted to stick to civil rights, political rights, what was in the constitution - that's what they stuck to, especially in the public speeches. So even though everybody and their organizations, people they knew, the local community, were all practicing co-op economics when they could, it wasn't talked about. Also, remember it was also dangerous. We still had people in the '60s being killed, not just for registering to vote; they were being killed for trying to do alternative economics sometimes. Lynchings had been going for a hundred years, and part of that was people trying to do alternative economics.
What do you think the cost was of that kind of divorce between civil rights talk and constitutional rights talk, and economic rights and co-op talk, and then the other part of me wants to focus on the positive. Why do you think it's coming back now? Maybe you can answer both.
Everyone I talked to said blacks don't do co-ops. We have that false history because no one would talk about it and people thought it was too dangerous to pass it down. We all thought we couldn't do it, and then we got hooked up to individualism. I still have people tell me, "Oh, I could never be in a co-op because I am an individualist and I want my own money" and this and that. Meanwhile, there are lots of people in co-ops who can still manage; in fact, they help people to get some income and wealth. So, it has taken a toll in terms of us not being able to easily get people to think about it, but the minute I start telling my stories and giving the histories, everybody finds a relative, a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, an uncle who were involved - so suddenly it resonates. So, that's why we're able now to - I think the movement is also moving again because people are seeing that "Oh, yeah, somebody did do that before," "Oh, I see how this could work." "Oh, this makes a lot of sense." Especially now in the Great Recession, we're still in the Great Recession, so many people don't have a way out. They see this as something that could work.
Maybe you found that choice of the American Dream hadn't worked out quite so well. I want to thank you so much for doing the work, for being out there with Collective Courage and for coming onto GRITtv. Good luck with the book and I think we'll see each other in Jackson.
Thank you very much; see you in Jackson.