Telling Uncovered Sides of the Story

Cooperation Jackson and the economics of black power.

Nathan Schneider

Early last year, I was in Jackson, Mississippi, reporting a story about the life and death of Chokwe Lumumba, a black nationalist lawyer who became mayor of the city in 2013.1 In the course of working on the article, I went to see the Reverend Wendell Paris—a civil rights elder—who was working, at that point, at a Baptist church in Jackson. Paris told me a side of the civil rights movement story that I had never heard before. He told me about the role of cooperative enterprises—business built on democratic shareholding and democratic governance. In the 1950s and 1960s, he had been a leading supporter of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

He talked about the pictures we’ve all seen of people lining up to register to vote and getting beaten up or driven out of the courthouse or something like that. He explained they were the co-op members, most of the time. They were the ones who wouldn’t get kicked off the sharecropping farm. They were owners, so they had the capacity to take a risk like that.

Then he talked about how Black Power started to emerge when Stokely Carmichael was staying on a cooperative farm in Georgia. It was in seeing cooperative ownership and self-management that Black Power as a frame started to emerge for Carmichael. He also told me stories about these cooperatives being suppressed just as ruthlessly as Black Power and the people registering to vote. There was one story about truckloads of cucumbers from black-owned co-ops that were being shipped up North because they couldn’t sell them in the South, and the Mississippi State Troopers stopped these trucks on the road under the hot summer sun; the troopers made the trucks sit there all day until the cucumbers were mush and then, when night came, they told them they could go ahead. This was a history I had never encountered before. But it actually goes even further back than the 1950s and 1960s.

Not long ago, I was glad to discover that my university library had a copy of W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1907 report from an Atlanta University conference on economic cooperation among Negro Americans. The report suggests that one might consider all economic activity among African Americans at that time to be in some sense cooperative. Churches are a subset of that report, and listed are several hundred distinct black-owned businesses that were operating under formal cooperative principles according to international standards at that time.2

The vital tradition of economic cooperatives is coursing through this movement, but we rarely or never see it in the news.

This is a story that I’ve begun to see come up more and more as I’ve asked questions about the economic side of resistance movements that have transformed our country. When I asked one of my own mentors, the onetime Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) worker Mary Elizabeth King, she said that, yes, when they were in Mississippi, they were organizing cooperatives as well as registering people to vote.3 It seemed obvious to her, though it is rarely remembered. Since holding an important role in communications with the SNCC, King has become a leading scholar of civil resistance, and she reminded me that Gandhi understood 90 percent of what he was doing to be “the constructive program”—the building of political and economic alternatives, represented by the spinning wheel on the flag of India. Only a small percentage of his activity was in the feats of resistance that got the headlines. The alternatives, for Gandhi, and for a lot of the African American communities of resistance, have also been deeply rooted in religious traditions.

If you look at the Black Lives Matter platform now, in the section on economic justice, cognates of “cooperation” and “cooperative” are mentioned forty-two times. The platform calls for “a reconstruction of the economy to ensure that Black Communities have collective ownership, not merely access.” The vital tradition of economic cooperatives is coursing through this movement as well, but we rarely or never see it in the news. At rallies I went to in New York’s Union Square after the death of Trayvon Martin, one of the first things people were calling for was economic boycotts. The role of the economy in this struggle has been there from the beginning, but we’ve rarely been able to talk about it.

After Mayor Lumumba’s death, the organization that emerged in his wake is called Cooperation Jackson. Cooperation Jackson has had an interesting role over the course of the Black Lives Matter movement through its connection to the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, an outgrowth of a series of black-nationalist organizations that emerged in the 1970s rooted in a sense of pan-African identity. The people involved in these organizations use terms like “Harambee” and “Ujima” to talk about their cooperative activity, drawing on African concepts and situating themselves in a transnational context.

The people who carry on the legacy of Lumumba in Jackson have been very involved in and supportive of the Black Lives Matter work in Mississippi and around the country, but they also sometimes issue critiques of the movement. I’ll never forget what Kali Akuno, a leader of Cooperation Jackson, said at one point while he was flipping chicken on a grill and talking to a group of people around him. He said, “I’m not a fan of the Black Lives Matter thing because, to be honest with you, they don’t. Your life did matter when you were valuable property. You were very valuable at one point in time. We’re not valuable property anymore.” This is not simply a critique of Black Lives Matter as such. It is a critique of the narrow framing that isn’t always able to see the broader vision.

This is a real challenge for us as journalists, as storytellers, as people who may be writing the first draft of history—and then for those who are scholars, who are compiling those first drafts into monographs. There are sides of these movements that get through, and then there are sides that do not get communicated that may be just as important, if not more important. There are limits to what we can pack into a narrative. There are limits also to what kinds of narratives people will hear, or that people will know how to hear, and these limits influence what gets picked up by news outlets.

I am grateful for my training in the study of religion, because in many respects that training helps me to see sides of movements that might not always be visible. I’ve tried—and haven’t always succeeded—to tell these buried stories and to help them be part of the conversation. I struggle with how to do this most effectively. I wonder how we can open up our narratives to entertain more stories, to include a broader mix that doesn’t normally enter into the picture but is so central to what it means to build a movement for social change and black power in this country.

 

Notes:

  1. The story, “The Revolutionary Life and Strange Death of a Radical Black Mayor,” was published in the April 2016 issue of VICE magazine.
  2. This book ended up spurring an important recent study by Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Professor of Community Justice and Social Economic Development at John J. College of Criminal Justice in New York City: Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014).
  3. Mary King was a communications director for the SNCC during the 1960s.
 

Nathan Schneider is a scholar in residence of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and resident fellow at the university’s Center for Media, Religion, and Culture. He is working on a book about cooperatives for Nation Books. This is an edited version of a talk he delivered in the “Black Lives Matter” panel during the “Religious Literacy and Journalism Symposium” held December 8–9, 2016, at HDS.

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