Juneteenth 2023: Cooperatives

A year has passed since my first Juneteenth post. I still don’t know what specifically happened to the African American farmer cooperatives of Colleton County, South Carolina, but for today we can look more broadly at the examples of cooperatives after the Civil War.

Today I purchased the book Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice by Jessica Gordon Nembhard. Quoting from an essay by Dr. Nembhard and her daughter Susan Nembhard,

When we closely examine African American history, we find the common phenomenon that even when Blacks have struggled to find employment, or have been discriminated against and oppressed at work, they have engaged in economic cooperation and solidarity. By cooperation we mean the founding of worker and consumer cooperatives – enterprises that are owned and democratically self-managed by their own workers or by the local community of consumers, not by a detached board and shroud of faceless profit-seeking shareholders. Though little-known and under-discussed even within radical circles, the Black cooperative movement in the US is one of the oldest and most successful examples of solidarity economy practices in the country. From the times of slavery through to Reconstruction, the civil rights era, and the present day, Black people have built up a solidarity economy in order to consolidate a base of material resources that placed real economic power directly in the hands of working-class Black people. Often, then and now, these have formed the economic backbone of the Black struggle for freedom against racial oppression.

The African American cooperative movement has been a mostly silent partner of the Long Civil Rights Movement in the US – throughout the struggle for Black liberation, activism for political, legal, and social rights was supported by demands for economic justice and cooperative economic practices. Early on African Americans realized that without economic justice – without equality, independence, stability, and prosperity for all – social and political rights were hollow, or not even achievable at all. In an editorial in 1933, W.E.B. Du Bois summed up the power of a cooperative economy for a subaltern population:

 …we can by consumers and producers’ cooperation…establish a progressively self-supporting economy that will weld the majority of our people into an impregnable, economic phalanx.

Look for a review of Collective Courage here in a few weeks.