A little co-op helped end black disenfranchisement

By David Thompson, President, Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation
This piece was originally published by the The Post and Courier

It was a small cooperative store on a little-known island off the coast of South Carolina. During the harshest days of the civil rights struggle, embattled black leaders came through its doors seeking inspiration. The co-op was called the Progressive Club, but it’s what began in that co-op that led to a movement that would eventually reshape the South.

The Progressive Club was started in 1948 by Esau Jenkins and 40 families from Johns Island as both a consumer co-op and a mutual-aid organization. The co-op bought an old school building on River Road and sold everything from groceries to gasoline and seed to feed.

The members used it to trade goods and services and as a mutual-aid program to help each other in time of need. Every member of the Progressive Club had to be a registered voter and had to pledge to get one or more voters out to vote on Election Day. But there was one small problem.

In order to become a registered voter in South Carolina at the time, blacks had to pass a literacy exam. Jenkins heard the plea from disenfranchised voters and began taking steps towards solving this issue. During routine bus trips to and from Johns Island, Jenkins would hand out informational pamphlets to his passengers. He began a daily custom of teaching them how to read, write and learn the law while he drove the bus.

What Jenkins was teaching on the bus to a few passengers, he wanted to make available to all the disenfranchised blacks on the Sea Islands. But how?

Jenkins himself was a product of this sort of clandestine educational society. Septima Clark, a Charleston educator and civil rights activist, would use her car to transport people from Charleston — Jenkins included — to a school in Tennessee called the Highland Center. It was here where Jenkins collaborated with Highlanders to merge with his bus classroom and sponsor a Citizenship School on Johns Island.

The first iteration of the Citizenship School began at the Progressive Club in 1957. But with the co-op having grown to 400 members, the old school building could not also accommodate the growing needs of the Citizenship School.

They tried to rent, but none of the schools, churches, or organizations on Johns Island dared to let the Citizenship School use their buildings for fear of what might happen to them.

So, Jenkins and the members of the Progressive Club saw that the only option was to lean on the cooperative model, and do it themselves by buying land and building a new co-op store with meeting space.

The new co-op opened its doors in 1963 and it was there, amongst the weighing scales and storage counters, that democracy for many blacks in the South was born.

On behalf of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Andrew Young and Dorothy Cotton were tasked with taking the Johns Island program to every part of the South.

Through the hundreds of Citizenship Schools they started, millions of blacks were finally able to gain the right to vote — and did.

The accomplishments of that simple Citizenship School, humbly created in a co-op shop, became one of the greatest stories of the civil rights movement.

David Thompson has worked for national cooperative organizations of the U.S., Britain and Japan, as well as the United Nations, and has visited the cooperative sectors in over 30 nations. His book, “The Role of Cooperatives in the Civil Rights Movement,” is scheduled for release in 2016.