Civil Rights and the Co-operative Movement

20 August 2013


When Christina and I visited the Civil Rights Museum, as part of the Federation conference pararama50th anniversary celebration of the civil rights movement, it set the stage for a weekend of equity-based activities.

And I thought we were just getting a free meal.

From Birmingham, we drove through the Alabama countryside and scattered African American farm holdings until we reached the intersection of Highways 20 and 21, arriving in Epes, AL.

Five miles later, down a gravel road, we reached the bungalows and trailers where the Federation of Southern Cooperatives was holding its annual meeting, celebrating 46 years of cooperative activities on behalf of farmers along the Black Belt.

 CFJC works with communities in California and across the country, on far ranging activities that include technical assistance for community engagement, leadership training, and capacity building, to Farm Bill workshops, advocacy, organizing, and policy making. At all times, and in all cases, our work is founded on basic principles of equity.

In Epes, Alabama, we witnessed the cooperative movement in action, likewise founded on equity.

In 2013, CFJC is moving forward with a more formal relationship with the Rural Coalition—the better to serve communities in rural America, as well as urban and suburb settings.

In Epes, they did so in a process based on equity and mutual cooperation, for mutual benefit.For the past three years, we’ve participated in efforts to create food hubs as a means of taking back our food system at the local level. What we witnessed in Epes was a co-op model that achieved everything the food hub activities could hope to achieve.

16th Street Baptist Church

I want to pause for a second and point out the obvious. That hard on the heels of our experience with the beatings, bombings, and murders of civil rights activists (including little girls), I feel  fortunate to be part of a movement based on equity that is positive, healing, and which also places economic benefit for the greater number of people first and foremost.

It is of course impossible to say that the cost of the blood, tears, and lives lost in the civil rights movement that got us to this point were worth it.

Especially to the families and loved ones of those painfully affected, that will never be the case.

That the coop model is successful and self-evident as demonstrated by the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is only a piece of the story.It is, however, emblematic of the righteousness of the struggle, and of those individuals, that, despite multi-million dollar campaigns to eat processed and poisoned foods, efforts continue to put people first, where working together in community is a proven economic model.  It would seem therefore that there really is no need to invent a “business model” that will provide direct financial benefits to only a few – i.e. the currently fashionable food hub concept.

Over the weekend we met Wilson Beebe, board chair of the National Cooperative Business Association, and CEO of the New Jersey Funeral Directors Association, a decidedly different kind of co-op.

What conversations with Beebe and others, and our observations taught us was that equity can be the foundation of a solid “business” model—that it is not either/or—that equity can and is the foundation of successful endeavors in spite of the disease of bigger is better, too big to fail, and the mythology of corporate logos.

When I first joined CFJC in June 2010, one of the first activities in which we participated was a conference the following May in Washington, DC as part of the launch of the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition.  At that conference I facilitated a session that included farmers, economists, anti-hunger activists, academics and others. The purpose of the session was to explore economic models for the future of agriculture.

As a neophyte, I listened attentively to the experts to learn how we got to the current state of affairs.  One of the most telling pieces of information I learned was that 1862 and 1890 land grant colleges and universities were founded to provide agriculture and mechanical arts education, and out of which cooperative extension services for farmers evolved, to help them in producing the food that graces American dinner tables.

Like so many other sectors of our lives, today in many cases where cooperative extension still exists it is financed by and serves the interests of corporations and agri-business. Like many other tendrils of the corporate takeover of our lives, under the guise of good business and benevolence, the movement of greed, bigger is better, and too big to fail that does not serve the daily lives of the people in this country now dictates what are “good” farming practices. And all too often, those interests do not support community cooperatives, but rather corporate players like Monsanto.

Back to 2013 then, how incredibly refreshing to witness the cooperative process in action: where farmers met by states, caucused, and reported back at a community session to the Federation’s general assembly.

From Epes, we traveled back to Atlanta, and after a couple of nights’ rest met with Federation officials at their business offices.  As part of our work as CFJC and the Rural Coalition, we will be learning more about the co-op model and intend to work closely with the Federation to ascertain the relevance and applications of cooperative models in communities elsewhere in the country.

With pictures of civil rights martyrs, activists, and confused people of all ethnicities still fresh in my mind, I do not pretend or avow that the cooperative movement is a panacea for what ails us—especially as we near the 50th Anniversary (August 28, 2013) of the People’s March on Washington, D.C.

But what I have learned is that we absolutely do not have to buy the bill of goods that corporations and their Congressional lackeys are trying to force feed us.

That those who sacrificed 50 years ago, and through two hundred years prior to that, did not do so in vain.

When I return to Oakland, Christina will remain in the South to explore opportunities with the Federation; with Bobby L. Wilson and Metro Atlanta Urban Farm; with K. Rashid Nuri at Truly Living Well Center; and with others in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and wherever the Rural Coalition members are located.

This is an exciting time for CFJC, the Rural Coalition, and for communities across the country coming to terms with the legacy of the civil rights movement.

Again, we are excited about the efforts of the co-op movement, and in other communities, where innovation and cooperation is driven by the ethic of equity and mutual benefit and not the disease of corporate greed and bigger is better.

We encourage you to share your stories of the work you see taking place in your community or elsewhere to rebuild healthy communities.

And staff would say I was remiss if I did not ask for your financial help. In this time of great opportunity there is also great need, as I know you realize all too well. Please give what you can, as you continue to join with us in the grand struggle.


All the best,

Armando Signature




Y. Armando Nieto
CFJC Executive Director



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CFJC promotes the basic human right to healthy food while advancing social, agricultural, environmental and economic justice. Through advocacy, organizing and education, we collaborate with community-based efforts to create a sustainable food supply. We envision a food system in which all activities, from farm to table, are equitable, healthful, regenerative and community-driven.

If you believe in these principles JOIN CFJC NOW.

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