Civil Rights revisited

I’ve just spent a couple of days visiting the headquarters of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a demonstration farm surrounded by hundreds of acres of forests. It is a really lovely spot, even if the facilities are not the most modern.

The assembly hall has several great murals including this one, which is one of my all-time favorites: new-orleans-026Please note the manual being perused in the produce section. The three people holding up the glowing sun is a Federation logo of sorts, appearing in a variety of places. This includes the sign at the entrance to the Federation’s “compound,” which was rumored to be a paramilitary training camp for Black nationalists when it was established in 1971. 

This morning I read a report by Thomas Bethell, called “Sumter County Blues” (a photocopy from 1982 that is probably impossible to find unless you visit Epes and someone graciously hands you a copy). It cast some light on something that I’ve been feeling since I first arrived: This place is the shell of what used to be. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing place that regularly hosts camps and conferences during the summer, and which has provided essential assistance for a movement that has done tremendous good. The Federation’s many achievements include doubling the prices received by farmers for peas and cucumbers during the first year of one co-op’s operation. And of course, this raised some hackles, because people who have a little bit of money are harder to control. But the center is a bit run down, and its substantial buildings – including a dormitory that sleeps 66 and large auditorium/cafeteria as well as various barns and houses – could use a bit of work. There is also a whole lot of its land lying fallow.

It is located in Sumter County, Alabama, which turns out to have been one of the last bastions of Apartheid in the US, where the white establishment was afraid of what had happened over in Greene County (which once hosted a visit by no less than Dr. King). This morning I read a report about the 1980-1 grand jury witch hunt, which played a large role in undermining the Southern cooperative movement. This was provoked by the Federation’s role in transforming local politics, as well as its key role in bringing about the economic change that Dr. King identified as a key companion for political change (as I discussed last week).

Despite decades of hostility following years of outright assault, the Federation continues its good work. It is badly underfunded and spread too thin, but this is the case with all of the co-op development centers of which I am aware. Certainly that is true of both that I’ve worked for, each of which are in rented offices a fraction the size of the administration building where I am presently sitting. This place is an amazing resource.

If anyone is looking for a needy and worthwhile cause (and who isn’t these days?) I would suggest that you look into this group, which is continuing the essential work of addressing economic racism.

I would like to close by sharing one more piece of my recent conversation with Carol Zippert. She told of an encounter with an elderly farmer when she was a young and zealous community organizer. She had just explained the wonders of cooperation using the following cartoon as an illustration:


He listened patiently, and then politely said “Yes, Miss Carol. But they still have the rope around their necks.”

And indeed they do.

She likened this to all the various forms of oppression still faced by African Americans, and took to heart his message that economic progress is only part of the solution. But she concluded by saying that this may be true, but they have to eat and keep their strength up. Then someday they’ll figure out how to take care of that rope.

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