Solidarity Economics, a Forgotten Practice of the Black Radical Tradition

Published on truthout, by Laura Flanders, April 9, 2014.

Video on GRITtv: Interview With Jessica Gordon Nembhard, 15.28 min, (also on YouTube, uploaded there by GRITtv, April 8, 2014).

Excerpt of Transcript:

… So, tell us some of the stories. Some of the documents in your book go all the way back to slavery times.

  • Definitely for slavery we’re talking about informal cooperative economics, not an official co-op business, but just collectively raising money to buy somebody’s freedom. One person might buy themselves out and then they would save money to buy their mother or daughter, their wife or their father – that kind of thing. That level of collectivity, people even consider the Underground Railroad to be a kind of collective activity, sort of collective economics, sharing of resources, that kind of thing. The more official relationships I found were what’s called mutual aid societies.

That was around funerals and doctor visits and things like that?

  • Yes, death, health, widows and orphans – that kind of thing – and basically, everybody puts in a certain amount every year or every month and then whoever needs it gets to take it out.

How were enslaved people actually doing that? Putting the money in? Was it allowed or just ignored by the slaveholders?

  • It was certainly done clandestinely. Often it wasn’t done by slaves, but it would be done by freed people because slaves in some ways couldn’t even bury themselves since they didn’t own their own bodies. In some ways a lot of these were more once you had a freed population, but some of it would be enslaved, because sometimes they were able to make a little bit of money on the side. If you had a skill, on Sundays you could hire yourself out. Some of the families would have a tiny, little garden by their cabin so they could sell some of that. So, there was a way to make a little bit of money and they tried to pool that to help each other. But a lot of the mutual aid would be through freed people, and there were freed populations during slavery.

Going forward, what’s the next big chapter or moment that you look at in the book? … //

… Jessica, congratulations; Collective Courage , it’s out. People can get it at their bookstores now – so exciting, such an unbelievable treasure trove of stories. Can you remember when you first realized, oh, my goodness what a history here? So there was fear of physical violence, there was also fear of red baiting, right?

  • Right, because of the McCarthy Era, the fear of being called a communist. In fact, for African-Americans, there were very serious consequences if you were considered a communist: you really couldn’t work; sometimes you were jailed. And co-ops were considered sort of socialist and communist – there was that problem – but even greater, I would say, were the ideology problems, so it’s not just the red baiting, but the ideology of capitalism was so pervasive and blacks often felt like they needed to be in the mainstream, otherwise they couldn’t make it. We weren’t taught about how to run a co-op or what a co-op was; we weren’t taught about alternatives. So, for people even thinking about what they would do, in some ways they had no models, they didn’t know about the models.

Did Dr. King ever talk about co-ops?

  • That’s a great question. I don’t have anything about him talking about co-ops, but you know Ella Baker was his executive director.

I know that organizers who played a physical role in the march for jobs and freedom, some of them were also involved in Fannie Lou Hamer’s co-op and had to have experience in SNCC.

  • John Lewis, if you read his full biography, his first job was doing co-op development in the South. And SNCC was actually a strong supporter, and actually SCLC was actually one of the groups that signed on for the beginning of the Federation of Southern Co-ops.

So you have all of these important civil rights organizations signing on in the middle-’60s and then by the mid-’70s, as you write, Fannie Lou Hamer has a very hard time in the ’70s with her co-op?

  • What you don’t understand is that they were practicing it, but they weren’t talking about doing cooperative economics, especially in the ’60s because they felt it would be too divisive, both within the black community because not everybody in the black community agreed with co-op development and outside of the black community, it was too dangerous to be seen as talking this commie stuff. So, they wanted to stick to civil rights, political rights, what was in the constitution – that’s what they stuck to, especially in the public speeches. So even though everybody and their organizations, people they knew, the local community, were all practicing co-op economics when they could, it wasn’t talked about. Also, remember it was also dangerous. We still had people in the ’60s being killed, not just for registering to vote; they were being killed for trying to do alternative economics sometimes. Lynchings had been going for a hundred years, and part of that was people trying to do alternative economics.

What do you think the cost was of that kind of divorce between civil rights talk and constitutional rights talk, and economic rights and co-op talk, and then the other part of me wants to focus on the positive. Why do you think it’s coming back now? Maybe you can answer both.

  • Everyone I talked to said blacks don’t do co-ops. We have that false history because no one would talk about it and people thought it was too dangerous to pass it down. We all thought we couldn’t do it, and then we got hooked up to individualism. I still have people tell me, “Oh, I could never be in a co-op because I am an individualist and I want my own money” and this and that. Meanwhile, there are lots of people in co-ops who can still manage; in fact, they help people to get some income and wealth. So, it has taken a toll in terms of us not being able to easily get people to think about it, but the minute I start telling my stories and giving the histories, everybody finds a relative, a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, an uncle who were involved – so suddenly it resonates. So, that’s why we’re able now to – I think the movement is also moving again because people are seeing that “Oh, yeah, somebody did do that before,” “Oh, I see how this could work.” “Oh, this makes a lot of sense.” Especially now in the Great Recession, we’re still in the Great Recession, so many people don’t have a way out. They see this as something that could work.

Maybe you found that choice of the American Dream hadn’t worked out quite so well. I want to thank you so much for doing the work, for being out there with Collective Courage and for coming onto GRITtv. Good luck with the book and I think we’ll see each other in Jackson.

  • Thank you very much; see you in Jackson.

(full long interview transcript, and links to related stories).

(LAURA FLANDERS Best-selling author and broadcaster Laura Flanders is the “strong local economies” fellow at Yes! Magazine and a contributing writer to The Nation. She hosts “The Laura Flanders Show” on GRITtv, an independent source for in-depth interviews with forward thinking people. Sign up to receive the latest at or On Twitter, she’s @GRITlaura).

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