By Cornelius Blanding, Executive Director at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund
This op-ed was originally published in The Clarion-Ledger.
As we pay respect this month to the history of black America, we should also recognize the contributions made by the cooperative movement during the battle for civil rights. Historically, cooperatives have operated as vehicles for people to unify and lift themselves up above any challenge they face. In African-American communities in the South, cooperatives were born out of necessity. The need for equal opportunity, fair prices and equal access to land and other resources represents the prejudice from which cooperation in the South was conceived. While the cooperative movement helped usher in an era of resiliency for underserved farmers, landowners and rural communities in the South, the need for cooperation today continues to be an integral component to the future and to the prosperity of the region.
Black land ownership was at its peak in 1910, when 218,000 black farmers cared for more than 15 million acres of land in the South. However, by the turn of the century, there were only roughly 18,000 black farmers owning approximately 2.3 million acres of land. Racial prejudice quickly changed the circumstances for the region’s Black farmers, forcing them to band together to work their way around many socioeconomic hurdles.
In Tennessee, farmers were forced to pool their resources and travel across state lines to purchase the gasoline they needed after local suppliers denied them access. In Alabama, sharecroppers who rightfully sought their fair share of government payments for the crops they had planted were booted from their land. These sharecroppers and their families unified by forming a land-buying cooperative to acquire land that they could care for and live on without the fear of being evicted. In Louisiana and Mississippi, farmers created cooperatives to transport their produce to the North in order to get the fair prices they were being denied in their own backyard. The resilience exhibited by Black farmers in the South and the cooperation they leveraged exemplifies the principles of the cooperative movement.
The array of co-ops that formed in the South during the civil rights movement were the building blocks for what is now the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. While many things have changed since the civil rights movement, limited resource and rural communities continue to face immense pressure especially in the South. These communities are always hit the hardest by economic downfall, but cooperatives and their collective work as a Federation are effective in providing those who struggle with a platform to lift themselves up.
Today’s economic landscape in the rural South is not unlike it was nearly half a century ago. Cooperatives are still being formed out of necessity to combat issues that are relevant to today’s economic, social and political landscape. Access to credit and markets, food security, land preservation and climate change are all issues directly impacting the longevity of southern Black farm families. Farmers are looking at climate change collectively to learn how they can pool their resources to produce and harvest crops more efficiently, thereby reducing damage to the environment. There is work being done to increase access to fresh produce for limited resource communities and to provide limited resource farmers with a locally owned and controlled platform from which to market that produce.
Farmers and land owners played a critical role in the civil rights movement and continue to play a critical role in the security of our food system and country; but over the past fifty years, we’ve continued to see a serious decline in the amount of land owned and being farmed by Blacks in the South. It is imperative that we reverse this trend of Black land loss because Black land still matters. Cooperatives in the South, and their collective work as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, are vital and continue to enable these families to retain their land, expand upon it and pass it on to a new generation of farmers, landowners and Southern cooperators.
Cornelius Blanding is executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, headquartered in Atlanta with offices in Jackson.