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Will Co-ops Spark a New Civil Rights Movement?

Crossposted from Rooflines: The Shelterforce Blog

While the words “co-op” and “civil rights” do not commonly appear in the same sentence, with more than 300 cooperative and social justice activists gathered in Jackson, Mississippi, last weekend, the question was hard to avoid.

Mississippi, of course, has long played a central role in civil rights history. In 1963, the NAACP (National Association for Advancement of Colored People) leader Medgar Evers was assassinated, as he pulled his car into his driveway outside his Jackson home. Many key moments in the civil rights movement from the Freedom Riders to the state’s Freedom Democratic Party delegation of 1964 took place in Mississippi.

Now, 50 years later, a new movement had emerged in Jackson, a city that is 80 percent African American and which suffers from a 28.3 poverty rate. In June 2013, running on a platform to create jobs by rebuilding infrastructure through the development of a network of community-owned cooperatives, Chokwe Lumumba was elected mayor of Jackson, Tragically, Lumumba died suddenly after complaining of chest pains in February, only eight months into his term. Lumumba’s son, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, ran for the vacated mayoral seat. While he made it into the runoff, he did not prevail, ending up with 46 percent of the votes cast in last month’s special election.

The Jackson Rising: New Economies Conference was planned before Mayor Lumumba died. Activists in Jackson quickly determined that while the charismatic leader had passed away, it was important for his vision to live on—and so the conference went on as planned.

At the conference, Kali Akuno, who had been coordinator of Special Projects and External Funding in the Lumumba administration, outlined the vision: “What I know that we were planning on doing … was to transform how contracts were structured, what they prioritized, what they incentivized, who was incentivized and what they could do. Change the procurement: who we bought from and why. Those were two immediate things we were working on. Another piece was setting up an incubator to foster the development of cooperatives; the government can’t run the co-ops. It won’t build them, but it can set the table … for most of the past 20 years, even though there has been a succession of black mayors, 90-95 percent of contracts to people who don’t live in Jackson. It was all about hiring people in Jackson.”

The notion of cooperatives in African American communities is an old one, dating back to the efforts of W.E.B. DuBois, who also helped found the NAACP. As Jessica Gordon Nembhard notes in her recently published study Collective Courage, one of the research conferences of Du Bois’ famous Atlanta Conferences at the turn of the 20th century was devoted to discussing cooperative businesses among African Americans. During the Great Depression, co-op development activity became a major focus in many African American communities, just as it was in many white working class communities. Some organizations, notably the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which organizes cooperatives mainly in the South’s rural “black belt,” continue to support cooperative development in African American communities. But, by and large, cooperatives have not been a major part of community development strategies.

Of course, much of the community development movement—sometimes consciously, sometimes not—can be considered part of a long civil rights movement that fights for both racial and economic justice. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King in the last year of his life helped launch the Poor People’s Campaign for an Economic Bill of Rights.

The return of cooperatives to the movement, as illustrated by the conference in Jackson, is a welcome development. One group that has helped foster this shift is the Southern Grassroots Economics Project, which brings together a number of partners, including the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, the North Carolina-based Fund for Democratic Communities, the Highlander Research and Education Center (also of civil rights movement fame) and the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, among others.

Meanwhile, in Jackson, Mississippi, the co-op effort is changing gears, but moving forward. While the loss of the mayor’s office makes leveraging city procurement much less likely, grassroots work to develop co-ops in such areas as recycling, construction, urban farming, and childcare continues. Activists also seek to develop institutions—incubators, training programs, and credit facilities—to support community building for the long haul. Elondria Williams, a member of the education team at Highlander, noted that founder Miles Horton had observed that there is a difference between organization-building time and movement-building time. “We are still in organizational building time,” Williams added. “That’s what we have to do.”

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