Many of the great African American thinkers, movers, and shakers were also leaders in the Black cooperative movement.
“Co-ops help to anchor economic activity in a community and keep resources recirculating in communities.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Jessica Gordon Nembhard. Dr. Gordon Nembhard is Professor of Community Justice and Social Economic Development in the Department of Africana Studies at John Jay College, of the City University of New York (CUNY) in New York City, where she is also Director of the McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. Her book is Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Jessica Gordon Nembhard: Collective Courage documents successes and challenges of Black mutual aid and cooperative business development during several different political economic regimes in US history. Political economic conditions in the 1880s for example were similar to the current period of time. Reconstruction was over, white supremacist terrorism and voter suppression were on the rise; Black and white populist movements, the labor movement and the cooperative movement were also popular and asserting themselves even in the repressive environment. Populists, labor, and the cooperative movement joined forces to create integrated and co-ed, worker cooperatives, credit exchanges, and co-op stores. In addition, Blacks created their own co-ops and credit exchanges. The examples provided in the book show how mutual aid and cooperation are possible even in the most oppressive environments; and even when it was politically and economically dangerous to pursue cooperative economic solutions because of sabotage and violence perpetrated by white competitors and supremacists. The book also shows how mutual aid and cooperatives were strategies often taken during economic crises and market failures, to provide needed goods and services, and access to them. Years during the Great Depression, for example, were found to be one of the most prolific periods of co-op development among African Americans.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Black cooperatives were started in the United States because Blacks were discriminated against in the mainstream markets and stores and factories, or couldn’t get the kinds of supplies and loans they needed. The co-op was a way to own and control their own enterprises and not depend on exploitative, discriminatory businesses and banks that others owned. African Americans used economic cooperation from the time of enslavement until the present, particularly starting with Mutual Aid Societies and later developing official cooperative businesses. African American farmers and organized labor in the north and south used cooperatives to help increase access to and affordability of supplies, equipment, and financial and human services. African Americans in urban areas also used cooperatives for such access and to create decent jobs. They were often hampered and limited because of their economic and educational marginalization – so they did not always have enough capital or education to run a collective business. Yet they persisted, and developed organizations to help educate and train them so that they could succeed. On the other hand, most of the problems were because they were challenged and thwarted by competitors and white supremacists who did not want them to succeed, and used financial and other economic sabotage as well as physical threats and violence against them.
“The co-op was a way for Blacks to own and control their own enterprises.”
Some of the benefits of cooperatives to Black communities and lessons learned are:
* Co-ops address community problems & market failure, in ways that strengthen and recirculate resources in communities.
* Co-ops enable pooling of resources and leveraging resources; sharing risk and sharing surplus.
* Education, study groups and training – learning from each other, informal study, formal study and specific training – are important in the development of cooperatives.
* Co-op development is enhanced by organizations and organizing dedicated to co-op education and cooperative development – getting the word out about co-ops as a viable strategy; power in numbers of members learning about and supporting co-ops; regional and national presence and support; coordinated education and advocacy.
* Community support, and sense of solidarity are significant in maintaining and protecting cooperatives.
* Co-ops require and develop democratic participation and internal solidarity and trust.
* There is a strong role for Black women, and the participation of Black youth have been essential to the Black cooperative movement.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Readers should un-learn that Blacks were not involved in cooperative ownership and the cooperative movement – they were. When I tell African American co-op history, many of the players are the same as those who became famous for Civil Rights Activity. Some Black leaders got their start in the co-op movement. There was early and consistent (though often hidden) interest in cooperatives as a strategy for economic independence.
Readers should un-learn that cooperatives are not a viable economic development strategy – they are. Co-ops help to anchor economic activity in a community and keep resources recirculating in communities; they provide access to quality and affordable goods and services, including access to credit through credit unions that are financial cooperatives. Co-ops also help members to earn better income, gain skills, and develop assets. Co-ops can be a viable alternative to capitalism and sole proprietor small businesses. Cooperative businesses actually survive longer than other small businesses.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Many of the great (even famous) African American thinkers, movers, and shakers were also leaders in the Black cooperative movement – including W.E.B. Du Bois, Ella Jo Baker, A. Philip Randolph, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Fannie Lou Hamer, also Jacob Reddix (who was a past president of Jackson State University), and the little known Helena Wilson (President of the Ladies Auxiliary to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters). Here are some inspiring quotes by some of them:
“We can by consumers and producers co-operation, . . . establish a progressively self-supporting economy that will weld the majority of our people into an impregnable, economic phalanx.” — W. E. B. Du Bois 1933. (“The Right to Work.” Crisis, 40 (April 1933): 93–94. Reprinted in W. E. B. Du Bois: Writings, ed. Nathan Huggins (New York: Library of America, 1986), 1237)
Cooperatives are “the best mechanism yet devised to bring about economic democracy.” — A. Philip Randolph 1944 (Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ Consumers Cooperative Buying Club rally, Chicago; quoted in Cohen, Lizabeth. 2003. A Consumers’ Republic; The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 49.)
“No race can be said to be another’s equal that can not or will not protect its own interest. This new order can be brought about once the Negro acknowledges the wisdom in uniting his forces and pooling his funds for the common good of all. Other races have gained great wealth and great power by following this simple rule and it is hoped some day that the Negro will do the same.” — Halena Wilson 1942, President of the Ladies Auxiliary to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (“Letter to Lucille Jones,” January 26 1942, 1-2. BSCP Collection, box 27, folder 3, Chicago History Museum, Chicago.)
“Courage: Every great movement started as we have started. Do not feel discouraged because in our few months of life we have not rivaled some long established Co-Operative venture. Each successful Co-Operative enterprise has taken much time and energy and sacrifice to establish. Nothing worth accomplishing is every achieved without WORK.” — Ella J. Baker 1931 (“Straight Talk,” no. 1 (July 1931), 2 (Young Negroes’ Co-operative League newsletter, New York, NY). Ella Baker Papers, box 2, folder 2, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York.)
“Cooperative ownership of land opens the door to many opportunities for group development of economic enterprises which develop the total community rather than create monopolies that monopolize the resources of a community.” — Fannie Lou Hamer 1971 (“If the Name of the Game Is Survive, Survive.” Speech given in Ruleville, Mississippi, September 27, 1971. Fannie Lou Hamer Collection, box 1, folder 1, Tougaloo College Civil Rights Collection T/012, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson.)
“I still believe that black people in the United States could lift the burden of economic exploitation from their backs by organizing a nationwide system of cooperative businesses through which they could produce and distribute to themselves and others, such consumer needs as food, clothing, household goods and credit. Such a system would include … credit unions, … consumer cooperative retail stores, … producer cooperatives.” — Jacob L. Reddix. 1974. A Voice Crying in the Wilderness: The Memoirs of Jacob L. Reddix. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, p. 119).
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
I believe that the next system that we need, and that hopefully we are moving toward, is a cooperative commonwealth within interlocking local solidarity economies. Such a system is created from the bottom up, building upon multiple grassroots cooperative enterprises, and democratic community-based economic practices. These networks collaborate and federate from the local to municipal, regional, national, and international levels. Each solidarity co-op practices both economic sustainability and economic democracy, and contributes to community wellbeing and prosperity, while helping to dismantle anti-Blackness racism and gender inequality. The examples and history provided in Collective Courage help us to see how these co-ops were developed and sustained – and what they accomplished. The book also provides examples of Black co-op federations and models of interlocking co-op systems such as the models provided by the Young Negroes’ Co-operative League (a national organization) and Consumers Cooperative Trading Company (Gary IN) in the 1930s; the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (a regional organizations from the late 1960s to the present); and The Black Panther Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I also hope that the quotations I provide from Black co-op leaders are inspiring for what and how we can accomplish a better more equitable world.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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