Southern Electric Cooperatives Still Segregated

By David Pace

Vol. 6, No. 4, 1984, pp. 15-16

Only two percent of the board members of rural electric cooperatives in twelve Southern states are black, even though the population of the areas served by those cooperatives is about twenty-four percent black.

That's one of the findings of a two-year study of Southern electric cooperatives by the Southern Regional Council.

"Electric cooperatives were born from the magnificent notion that they would be grassroots democratic organizations that serve all their members," said Steve Suitts, executive director of the Council. "But over time in the South, they have grown to be the very opposite of the concept that gave them birth."

Suitts said the Council's Co-op Democracy and Development Project, which is at least six months away from publishing its findings and recommendations, found under-representation of blacks on the boards of electric cooperatives throughout the South.

Relying on documents the electric cooperatives filed with the federal government between 1981 and 1983, Suitts said the project found that out of a total of 3,035 board members in twelve Southern states, only sixty-one were black.

In Mississippi, for example, cooperatives provide electricity to areas where the population is thirty-seven percent black. But Suitts said no black ever has served on a co-op board in Mississippi.

The Southern state with the best representation of blacks on co-op boards, according to the SRC's findings, was South Carolina, where five percent of the 221 board members were black.

Suitts said board members of Southern electric cooperatives have been able to perpetuate themselves in office by turning their annual meetings--those required by law for the election of board members--into more of an entertainment event or picnic for the community than a democratic election.

In addition, he said Council researchers have turned up evidence that board members use a variety of other tactics to keep themselves in office, including:

--Using co-op employees to solicit proxy votes for incumbent board members when they are reading meters or collecting bills, while at the same time denying potential challengers to board members access to lists of the cooperative's customer-members.

--Scheduling annual meetings at times when most members cannot attend, and abruptly adjourning such meetings when it appears incumbent board members might lose their reelection bids.

Mattie Olson, a spokeswoman for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association in Washington, said her organization would have no comment on the SRC's study until it is published and the association has time to analyze its findings.

Electric Cooperatives in the South were set up in the 1930s and 1940s under a New Deal program designed to turn on the lights in rural America. They were created by local citizens using model legislation enacted by the various Southern legislatures.

Because that model legislation provided that cooperatives would be democratically controlled by their customers, only two Southern states--Arkansas and Virginia--have given their public service commissions the authority to regulate the rates charged by electric cooperatives.

Racial makeup of Southern rural electric cooperatives

state Black Population in Areas Served by Co-op Total Number Co-op Board Members Number Black Co-op Board Members
Alabama 21% 192 4
Arkansas 17% 178 3
Florida 10% 158 2
Georgia 26% 399 11
Kentucky 14% 186 1
Louisiana 28% 197 1
Mississippi 37% 201 0
North Carolina 22% 304 13
South Carolina 24% 221 11
Tennessee 14% 205 2
Texas 16% 645 8
Virginia 26% 149 6

Source: Southern Regional Council

Based on documents co-ops filed with the federal government between 1981-1983.

In one state where co-op electric rates are not regulated


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--Mississippi--Suitts said a study by a legislative committee found that cooperatives had the lowest operating costs of any provider of electricity in the state, but they also had the highest rates.

"If they were entirely government institutions, there would be much more strict scrutiny of their conduct, and there would be much easier ways to get at their nonresponsiveness to customers.

"As it is, they sit right between government and the private sector and get the benefit of the worst abuses of both," he said.

David Pace writes for the Associated Press.