Alabamarama

After a relatively poor night of sleep on the train I got off in Tuscaloosa. I was picked up by my friend and colleague, John Zippert, who was gracious enough to spend the afternoon driving me to smaller and smaller towns.

First, we went to Eutaw. This is the seat of Greene County, which is about 80% African-American and part of Alabama’s “Black Belt.” This is a deeply impoverished region, but on the bright side the county’s top leaders are all black.

John and his wife Carol live there. They are the publishers of the local weekly paper, which they have been doing since 1984. That was a long and fascinating story that I can’t do justice here; I’ll just say that all sorts of racial and political dynamics were at play, but that they have greatly outlasted the last several white publishers combined.

We attended the 80th birthday party/service for a local pastor, which featured three hours of song, really hilarious jokes, and roasting that was nothing like I’ve heard from the Methodists back home, as well as some really astonishing Southern Baptist style preaching from a guest pastor who was about my age on Matthew 19 (in which Jesus tells a young rich man to sell everything and give the money to the poor).

It was a good message, but what really struck me was the style of delivery: the preacher started with a painfully low and slow pace, before slowly building up towards a musical cadence that was more like singing than speaking. For about 10-15 minutes he was ripping along, his regular gasping inhalations sounding a lot like a steam engine. He was so intent that he didn’t even manage to wipe his brow; every minute or two he would pick up one of his two handkerchiefs, wave it around for a bit, and then set it down. I could only understand about a quarter of the words once he got into his groove, but it was a fabulous sermon overall. When it was all over, I knew I’d been to church.

Over dinner, I discovered that one of my hosts was a disciple of Father A.J. McKnight, who was the Moses Coady (or Arizmendi, or Guetti) of southwest Louisiana. That is, he was the priest who got the ball rolling with cooperatives, realizing that they had a huge role to play in ministering to an oppressed or marginalized people. When the Voting Rights Act passed she was actually in Nova Scotia for a 10-week cooperative training program through the Coady Institute.

She provided a gold mine of leads on things for me to investigate further over the next few days. I’ll be writing more soon, but tonight I’ll just say that there was a big thing going on in and around Lafayette during the 1960s. There were Catholic and other churches organizing community investment funds that were used to launch a bakery and other businesses, as well as a network of bulk food buying clubs called the Southern Consumer Cooperatives. This last group formed an education fund that apparently still exists. There are also many faith-based credit unions that remain from these days.

After dinner, John drove me to Epes, which is a formerly small town that is now nearly gone (just a post office and a few storefronts left in a cluster along the tracks). From there, we continued on to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives‘ rural training and research center, which is about five miles from Epes. I’ll be spending the next couple of nights in the dorms here. I visited once before, and although the place is a bit lonely when there aren’t 100 or so people around for camp or a training, it is still a great place with a rich history of community organizing. I’m also looking forward to a walk in the fairly deep woods.

My original New Orleans plan of meetings and presentations doesn’t seem to be panning out, so I’m going to use this week to do a bunch of research on the three way intersection between the Civil Rights Movement, churches, and cooperatives. I hear that there is a big archive waiting for me at Tulane.

It’s just as well. I’ve been talking too much.

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