The Southern Regional Council and the Roots of Rural Change

By Steve Suitts

Vol. 13, No. 3, 1991, pp. 5-12

Since the creation of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation--the Southern Regional Council's parent organization--in 1919, the SRC has been guided by our sense of belonging to the rural areas of the South even as the skyscrapers around our offices in Atlanta have announced the arrival of urbanity.

Over the decades the Council has attempted to improve conditions in the rural South in differing ways and through various strategies. We have devoted our energies to reducing rural poverty because we know that the South will never free itself from past burdens, never achieve its highest ambitions until we come to terms with the patterns of poverty, racism, sexism, and disfranchisement that have grown out of our rural past and continue stubbornly to persist there and elsewhere.

This knowledge allows us to appreciate both the strengths and the failures of human enterprise in the rural South and to use our collective, institutional experience to shape our fixture strategies and reinforce our continuing commitment.

One of the South's worst race riots--at least since the days of slavery--was still reverberating across both black and white communities in 1919 when Dr. Will Alexander set up the offices of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation in Atlanta. Perhaps more accurately called an armed rebellion, rural poor black farmers in the Delta of Arkansas had responded to blind racial violence of white landlords by arming themselves. For that act of militant self defense, the black farmers and their community suffered more than a dozen lynchings and scores of permanent injuries as white law enforcement officers and vigilantes undertook to teach these rural poor blacks a lesson in Southern race relations in the name of law and order.

Recognizing the unbridled forces of racism throughout the South, the Commission launched programs to help black veterans of World War I return to a productive life in rural areas and, later, to sponsor the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching where


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Jesse Daniel Ames led a group of white women to fight the violence of racism, sexism, and poverty, especially the rural South. "Not in our name," they protested as they challenged openly some of the region's past assumptions and practices.

By modern standards, these efforts--primarily by, white Southerners--were in fact paternalistic. They were efforts to help black citizens by appealing to whites to act rationally without challenging the South's assumptions of black inferiority. Moreover, it was war that left the rural poor--black and white--disfranchised, powerless to improve their own economic conditions.

After the Great Depression engulfed the South and the nation, the Roosevelt Administration introduced a new era and a new role for the federal government in the twentieth century. In the New Deal, the leaders of the Council's parent organization took their places in the alphabet of new federal agencies. Dr. Will Alexander--remaining as the head of the ICC--became the director of the Farm Security Administration, the agency of the federal government with the responsibility to assist the poorest of the rural poor.

Under Dr. Will, the agency spearheaded six major programs in rural areas of the South:

* Farm ownership programs that attempted to help tenant farmers and sharecroppers to purchase their own farm land with loans and grants:

* Rural rehabilitation programs to provide for substance care, sanitary facilities--social services provided by the community for the community;

* Cooperative associations programs to encourage and support the creation of poor people's cooperatives that provided local purchasing. marketing, and production of farm goods and supplies;

* Medical care programs to provide medical care. dental care, and hospital care for the rural poor through group associations;

* Debt adjustment programs to prevent additional foreclosures of farm land;

* Special populations programs to create a variety of programs of special geographic areas, such as a program of leadership development among African-Americans in the rural South.

These programs of Dr. Will Alexander's agency were far reaching during the 1930s and early 1940s. Perhaps as many as 30,000 black tenants were able to purchase land in the rural South and probably three times that number of white tenant farmers in the South. Almost 700,000 family farms across the country received loans of small size to help improve their housing, livestock, or farm implements. More than half a million farm families received small grants for emergency needs or sanitary facilities, such as clear water wells. The FSA under Dr. Alexander established more than 25,000 poor peoples cooperatives, half in the South. And, by 1942, the agency had created almost a thousand medical and dental associations where 150,000 poor families received health care at reduced or no cost.

Improving many rural lives

While each of these programs in the rural South yielded to the segregationist and discriminating practices of the South, Dr. Will's programs improved the lives of more poor blacks in the rural South than any other New Deal program. (In fact, this program--it can be argued


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--was the second most important federal program for the welfare of blacks, since Social Security and the minimum wage exempted most of the occupations in which non-farm blacks worked.)

The co-ops funded by the Farm Security Administration in the South were under the direction of George Mitchell, a Virginia economist who would become the second director of the Southern Regional Council. These co-ops included some that were all black, such as a settlement established for one hundred destitute African-Americans in Wilcox County, Alabama, where the federal agency purchased a large white plantation and provided funds for housing, equipment, and community improvements. In others, blacks and whites worked together on equal terms despite the opposition of racist politicians and other white community leaders. According to one commentary, "hundreds of thousands of poor people in the rural South received valuable assistance" from the FSA cooperatives.

Some FSA administrators envisioned the agency's co-ops as more than experiments in self-help. They wanted them to prompt local mass action and solidarity among the black and white poor. Moreover, as political scientist V. 0. Key observed, in general, "The New Deal affected the masses of the South as had no political movement since the Populist uprising." It showed poor whites that politics could be more than just oratory on preserving the Southern way of life and demonstrated to poor blacks that the federal government cared about their improvement. Yet, the power of segregated politics (and a poll tax that also kept poor whites out of the political system) doomed the cooperative movement. By 1946 small black and white farmers lacked the political and economic clout to preserve the Farm Security Administration. It was replaced by a conservative Farmers Home Administration which quickly began to serve the interests of big white farmers.

When Dr. Will left the Roosevelt Administration, he joined with other whites in responding to the call of a group of black leaders to create a new regional organization to address, in an affirmative way, the problems of the region, including the problems of poverty. In 1943-1944 the Commission was disbanded and the Southern Regional Council was established in its place.

Limited by increasingly hostile white leadership and, captured by the firestorm after Brown v. Board of Education, the Council spent much of the 1940s and 1950s attempting to enlarge the political clout of poor blacks and to preserve the South's public school system. In the 1960s the Council's Voter Education Project inaugurated the first non-partisan voter registration drives in the country and enabled the registration of more than two million additional black voters--almost one million in the rural South.

Another era of activism

The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s marked another era of activism among poor blacks in the rural South. Challenging segregation, disfranchisement, and poverty, the South's civil rights organizations attempted to assist the poor in meeting their immediate needs and to push the federal government to establish policies addressing their fundamental needs. Through self-help groups and cooperatives, poor blacks began to free themselves from the control of the local white economy--a freedom allowing them to register and vote and to boycott hostile white merchants. In the late 1960s the Southern Regional Council joined a few other regional organizations to create the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which became and remains a supportive agency for starting and sustaining local economic cooperatives throughout the South. In addition, community develop-


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ment corporations and economic development arms of the local community action programs were established in some of the poorest areas of the Deep South in order to remove blacks front the local systems of economic intimidation and to address elements of poverty.

During this time, President Lyndon Johnson created a national commission on rural poverty and one of its officers-a vice-president of the Southern Regional Council-helped increase public attention on needed policies addressing the rural poor.

During this time the Council also supported the work of several new cooperative ventures. It gave a small seed grant to a group of black women--led by Estelle Witherspoon--who were creating a quilting bee in Wilcox County, Alabama It purchased and deeded three hundred acres of prime farm land for use by farmer sharecroppers in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.

Yet, in 1969, urban riots and political reactionaries turned the nation away from the War on Poverty to an era of Nixon, "benign neglect" and Watergate. Despite these difficult times, the Council led a citizens' inquiry into hunger that prompted national attention on the problems of hunger and malnutrition in the rural South. With the assistance of Robert Coles and others, the Council's efforts spurred the work of Robert Kennedy and George McGovern to introduce legislation for the nation's first food stamp program. In league with other Southern groups, the Council's citizen's inquiry was also responsible for convincing Southern senators, including especially Fritz Hollings South Carolina that real hunger existed in own state--among both black and white poor. Those Southern votes assured that the nation's food stamp program became law and, in subsequent years, was expanded.

By the middle of the 1970s--sensing a need to articulate a larger vision of both the problems and possibilities in the rural South--the Southern Regional Council sponsored the independent Task Force on Southern Rural Development to enlarge, once again, the concern for rural poverty and to develop new strategies for improving both local practice and government policies. During three years of study, members of the task Force represented a wide range of Southern leadership, including Jimmy Carter (who suspended his membership in order to campaign for president); Ray Marshall, who was the Task Force director Juanita Kreps; Alexander Heard, who was at the time chairman of the Ford Foundation; and several others. When the Task Force's summary report, Increasing the Options, was issued in early 1977, three members were already in Washington in the White House or the President's cabinet.

While its members went to high places, the findings of the task force were not self-executing. Left to assistants and deputies in the federal government who had no understanding of the task force's mission, recommendations for federal action were often compromised and, ultimately, became secondary to the Carter Administration's own national goals. Without a constituency of rural leaders and organizations pushing the Task Force's findings, Increasing the Options languished at a time when its best advocates were in the federal government.

Shaping policy and increasing resources

Responding to this problem and the unmet opportunities for reshaping federal policies, around 1978 several local and regional groups in the South (including the Southern Regional Council) started the Southern Rural Policy Congress. Composed primarily of black organizations working on economic development in the South's


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Black Belt, the Policy Congress had two major goals: to help the federal government shape policies that addressed the needs of the rural poor and to increase the federal resources for local economic development.

Regrettably, the Policy Congress quickly turned into a forum for fundraising with federal agencies on behalf of its members. With available funding for housing and economic development programs from Washington, these local organizations joined many non-profit groups around the country in becoming grantees of the federal government. As a result, issues of policy became secondary and were generally confined to matters of allocating funds.

After the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Southern Rural Policy Congress ceased to operate primarily because many members faced deep financial crises due to the termination of large federal grants. In this environment the Southern Regional Council and three other regional organizations--the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, the Emergency Land Fund, and the Voter Education Project--created the Southern Rural Alliance in order to improve cooperation and to develop strategies for addressing rural poverty under anew federal administration. Eventually this Alliance led to the merger of the Emergency Land Fund as a special division of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and to a couple of limited, joint ventures attempting to increase political participation in rural areas. The Alliance also petered out when both the Emergency Land Fund and the Voter Education Project no longer could participate due to their own financial problems.

For most of the 1980s, community organizations in the rural, poor South have been on their own in shaping programs, resources, and approaches to practices and policies. Rarely have community-based-economic development corporations, cooperatives, community development corporations, and other community organizations in the rural South come together in common concern during the last ten years. Both organizational demands and a climate of retrenchment have been substantial barriers. Yet, over the decades, many organizations have more than endured, overcoming substantial problems within their own ranks and their own communities. Some groups have diversified their work. Others have encircled their activities with a role in political participation. And others have established new partnerships with local or state leaders of businesses and government.

Promoting democracy in the rural South

During this time the Council returned to its agenda of promoting democracy in the rural South. Over the last ten years the Council used its expertise and reach to redraw the single-member election districts of more than a thousand jurisdictions across the South, probably half in the rural South. These redistricting changes have accelerated the increase in public officials who are elected by the votes of poor people [copy obscurred; possibly "of color"] [sic] [unknown] .

In addition, the Southern Regional Council returned to the promise of economic opportunity, first established


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during the New Deal. During the mid 1980s, we began to search for ways to increase the democratic control of utility cooperatives, first created in the time of Dr. Will Alexander's government service and which now have more than seven billion dollars of assets throughout the rural South. Exploring the means to bring these economic institutions under the control of poor rural blacks, whites, Indians, and Hispanics, the Council discussed many of the same problems of anti-democratic practices that it first met in Southern politics in the 1940s and 1950s.

Collective experience is significant

In searching for the roots of change in the rural, poor South today, the collective experience of the Southern Regional Council and its Southern neighbors over the last seven decades has a direct bearing upon effective practice and policy in the rural South in the future. Nowhere in the United States has the experience in working with the rural poor been more substantial and more representative than in the South's Black Belt, Appalachia, and the Rio Grande Valley. Through a little thick and a great deal of thin, community organizations in these areas have found ways to build low-cost housing, create some jobs, improve self-help and self-sufficiency, and muster a local constituency of supporters and members. In the 1960s many groups and their leaders helped to motivate public policy on poverty and race. In the 1970s they were often the extension of policy. In the 1980s they became the victims of policy.

So rich in experience and too long isolated from one another, the local leaders of community organizations in the rural South are emerging in the 1990s in search for new possibilities and new capacities. Extending out of both the limits and the achievements of the past, the time has come to bring together the leadership of the rural, poor South so that they might explore collectively how to extend effective local practices and to help shape public policy on issues of rural poverty.

None of these organizations' strategies for empower-


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ing the rural poor over the last seventy years achieved their primary goals, but the cumulative effects of their activities over time probably are not fully appreciated. For example, Dr. Will's agency enabled a black cooperative settlement in the 1930s in Gee's Bend (Wilcox County), Alabama From that origin grew in the l960s the Freedom Quilting Bee, one of the earliest black women's cooperatives. The Quilting Bee originated a wide range of antipoverty efforts in the county, and the community was home to the first black elected officials in the county. Gee's Bend also provided leadership In challenging local segregated and racist practices throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The quilting bee operates today.

Empowerment substantial, but incomplete

In Holmes County, Mississippi, part of the local leadership of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s came out of the same community where Dr. Will's Farm Security Administration assisted several hundred black farmers in acquiring land and starting cooperatives in the 1930s. These independent farmers led local blacks to challenge segregated schools and barriers to black voter registration in the county in the 1960s and have been the core of much of the leadership of Holmes County.

In the same vein, the cumulative effects of political empowerment in the rural South have been substantial, even if they are not yet complete. The clearest evidence--and probably the most unknown evidence--is found in the transformation over the last twenty-five years of support for anti-poverty efforts by Congressional representatives from the Black Belt. This broad area of the South has the nation's largest concentration and population of rural black poor. It stretches across the deep South where large plantations existed during slavery, up the southern Atlantic coast. It is in this part of the South where the political empowerment of poor blacks has met with the most violent and hostile response.

From 1965 through 1989, the U.S. House of Representatives recorded thirty-eight significant votes relating to expanding or establishing federal anti-poverty programs. Examining the votes of members of Congress representing most of the Black Belt counties within two periods--from 1965 through 1977 and from 1978 through 1989--reveals a radical change in voting behavior among these House members. From 1965 through 1977, only 11 percent of the Black Belt Congressional delegation supported anti-poverty programs on twenty-six important roll calls. During the latter period, however, Black Belt support enlarged to 41 percent on twelve significant roll calls.

This shift represents more than a change in political behavior. It strongly suggests a significant, enlarging change in the outcome of proposed anti-poverty legislation. For example, the key House vote on the Family Support Act passed by only seven votes. Legislation in 1983 providing emergency loans to long-term unemployed homeowners passed the House by only twenty votes. Increases in Medicare funding in 1982 passed by only thirty-two votes. In each of these decisions fewer than seventeen votes changed the outcome, and in each case the shift in Black Belt voting behavior had a decisive role.

(By the same measure, if political changes in the Black Belt had occurred earlier, some different outcomes might also have been possible. For example, the 1967 decision of the U.S. House of Representatives to slash the budget of the Office of Economic Opportunity could have been prevented by a swing of sixteen votes. In 1972, a substantially higher minimum wage could have passed the House had five votes from the Black Belt supported the more generous legislation.)

These political changes over the last three decades have ushered in a new era of Southern politics, one that has deepened the region's political commitment favoring civil rights and concern for poor through government action. They represented an enlarging concern for policies and resources for the poor among government officials at a time when, in general, government was diminishing its commitment and initiative to address poverty in the 1980s.

By most indicators, however, the political changes in the rural South remain "in progress," part of an unfinished revolution. Here a reservoir of change remains embanked, awaiting further, effective activities.

Perhaps most absent from the 1980s and its phenomenal political change in the rural South was the collected presence of vigorous, rural community-based organizations that could be the enlivening agents of change and the mechanisms for assuring that political change translated into real changes in the lives of the poor.

Political and economic change needed

Our history suggests that these two elements of rural communities--political change and community-based economic change--may be co-equally necessary. It may be that we must have both economic and political empowerment in concert and interaction, if we are to make real changes. In the 1930s, Dr. Will had the means to make remarkable economic change, often through means of economic empowerment--giving poor farmers their own land from which to work, bringing them into cooperatives to provide for themselves, having the poor work together to provide for basic health needs. Yet, Dr. Will and the FSA did not have the means nor the will to enable political empowerment of the poor at the same time. As a result, poor whites and poor blacks lost the Farm


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Security Administration in the 1940s since they had no political power to maintain its mission over the objections of large landowners.

In the 1960s, we did have a very brief period where the two elements were in concert in some counties. Yet, once again, economic empowerment was usually followed by political power and the interaction was quite limited. Moreover, the War on Poverty was not a governmental program of self-help and independence in the spirit of Dr. Will's work. Shaped too much by the legislative compromises of the segregationist Southern Congressional delegation, the War on Poverty assumed that the poor could remove themselves from poverty with job training, a little cash, and some social services.

In most respects we have not had the full force of both political and economic empowerment at work in the rural South at the same time.

Community economic control is vital

In order to establish in the 1990s a genuine movement for fundamental change in rural poverty, the community control of rural economic institutions is vital--not simply the existence of community-based organizations, but the community-based control of many economic institutions. In a world economy where local rural communities' needs may often be secondary to international corporate interests, community and economic institutions can create a counter-balancing force that protects community interests. In rural places like the Black Belt, the existing utility cooperatives can be one of those important community economic institutions which the poor should help control. The utility cooperatives have resources and influence in local areas but, on the basis of available evidence, they are far from democratic in many rural, poor communities.

Utility co-ops also encompass the nature of cooperation and decision-making that is vital to both the welfare of rural areas and the process of movement-building. They are economic institutions that locally provide for the needs of the whole community and, therefore, require community-wide cooperation and decision-making. In addition, both electric and telephone cooperatives are a vital part of the infrastructure of rural areas, and their local policies have a great impact on the nature of local economic development They provide a basic necessity to the poor and have a system of organization and some available capacity to provide other essential services to the poor. Utility co-ops are also a growth industry, providing services that are at the core of the information age. Equally useful, the utility co-ops have opportunities and methods for effective local community participation and education on matters of local and national policy. Their magazines, mail billings, meetings, service routes, and local offices offer remarkable networks of communications in communities so that democratic participation goes beyond merely casting ballots.

Admittedly, the impact of the utility cooperatives on matters of poverty has not been far-reaching in recent years, but the potential should not be prejudged before democratic control becomes genuine.

Of course, other forms of cooperatives, especially new forms outside of agriculture, should provide additional vehicles for addressing the practical, immediate needs of the poor and a forum for improving the nature of discourse and public policy. Nevertheless, the democratic promise of the utility cooperatives--when associated with the potential for political empowerment in the same communities may hold a strategic, beginning place in the future of the rural poor South.

Alone, the prospects for political and economic empowerment in the rural South will not be enough to transform the development of public policy on poverty throughout the United States. Moreover, the South's tradition of empowerment has failed over the decades to join forces with other segments of the population or to overcome the scarcity of resources and limits of vision. Yet, these failures should inform our future efforts to enlarge democratic control, not check them. In the years ahead, our whole nation will develop the vision, capacity, and will to recover from the deadlock and fatigue of the 1980s only if we keep faith with democratic traditions and principles that, among other things, allow the poor to empower themselves, their own institutions and their own communities. In so doing, society must find ways to do more than adjust to poverty.

In that tradition, I submit, lies the roots of change for the rural South and one of the compelling mandates of the 1990s for the Southern Regional Council and its good friends and neighbors.

Since 1978, Steve Suitts has been executive director of the Southern Regional Council. This article is adapted from a talk at the 1990 annual meeting of the SRC in Atlanta.