The Federation of Southern Cooperatives Under Siege
By John Vodicka
Vol. 2, No. 8, 1980, pp.18-21
In rural Sumter County, Alabama, the plantation mentality still survives, tainted somewhat by the 20th Century, but preserved well enough to be easily recognized. Some Black people still step aside to let White people pass them on the sidewalk. Paved roads stop at the White folks’ cemetery, leaving red dirt roads for Blacks to travel to their cemetery and churches. The Whites openly refer to Sumter County public schools as “the nigger schools” and send their children to private, segregated academies. The Sumter County Public Library’s official history book on the area contains a chapter on “colored people” that describes Blacks as “entirely too careless and improvident.”
The old catechisms of racism are still spouted by most Whites in Sumter County. It is a county whose institutions and attitudes, even in 1980, are frankly, admittedly, unashamedly—and in some instances triumphantly—dominated by Whites. And consequently, as one Black citizen of Sumter said recently, “Blacks in this county have always been excluded from access to political, economic and institutional structures which control their lives.”
But the winds of change are starting to blow across the rolling, brilliantly green countryside of Sumter County. Sumter, the western-most of Alabama’s 10 “Black Belt” counties that stretch clear across the southcentral part of the state, is slowly experiencing what it did not achieve during the turbulent ’60s: Black people struggling for their human, economic and civil rights.
Black farmers and farmworkers in Sumter County are forming cooperatives to better produce an income on their small tracts of land. Credit union, consumer and handicraft cooperatives have been established. A community health center that tends to the medical needs of the poor now exists. Blacks have run for public office and are forming coalitions to deal with economic issues that were formerly decided by Sumter’s controlling White power structure.
Last spring, the Sumter County Coalition, a Black-led group, successfully boycotted the public schools and local businesses in Livingston, the county seat. The boycott lasted
six weeks, and when it was over Blacks had won a commitment from the White-controlled school board to spend $400,000 to upgrade school facilities, to hire more Blacks to administrative positions in the school system, and to hire a Black principal at one of the schools. Now the Sumter County Coalition is gearing up to see that the incumbent White school board members face Black challengers during the fall’s elections.
Many believe the catalyst behind this sudden upsurge of Blacks taking control over their own lives is the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (FSC), a Blackadministered program that has organized a grass roots movement giving hope to thousands of Blacks and low income people across the rural South. For the last 10 years FSC has had its headquarters near Epes, Alabama, a tiny Sumter County town that lies on the limerock banks of the Tombigbee River.
Funded largely by federal dollars, the FSC functions primarily as a unique educational institution that serves the needs of over 100 member cooperatives and some 30,000 people in 14 states. It provides training in coop organization, management, accounting, agriculture and marketing; it also helps rural Blacks develop alternative money-saving farming techniques such as solar greenhouses and wood heating stoves, housing rehabilitation and alternative cropping.
The Federation has also encouraged its non-staff members to get involved in their community and to become active in political struggles. Former FSC staff members have often be come community activists. Wendell Paris, who worked with FSC in the mid-1970s, now heads the Sumter County Coalition.
In recent Years, Sumter County’s White power structure, led by Livingston Mayor I. Drayton Pruitt, Jr., has launched an all-out attack on the Federation, seeking to destroy it and thereby return things to the way “they used to be” in Southwest Alabama. Pruitt and other powerful Whites feel threatened by FSC’s presence; their political and economic domination of Sumter County is on shakier ground than they’d like it to be.
Pruitt and his father (and law partner), I. Drayton Pruitt, Sr., are long-term Wallace backers. The elder Pruitt was Wallace’s floor leader in Montgomery; Mayor Pruitt was a Wallace delegate at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Together, the Pruitts own the Livingston Bank, a grocery store, the newspaper and a lot of land, much of which fronts the Tombigbee River.
Last year Pruitt, along with Sumter County Probate Judge Sam Massingill and Tax Assessor Joe Steagall, wrote first-term Alabama Congressman Richard Shelby complaining about the FSC’s “political involvement” in Sumter County affairs. “Government funded activism,” they labeled the Federation, and charged such political activity violated federal funding guide-
lines. A preliminary GAO audit was initiated by Shelby—to no avail. FSC was given a clean bill.
But the Federation’s troubles weren’t over. Last New Year’s Eve, FSC executive director Charles Prejean was subpoenaed by the federal grand jury of Northern Alabama and ordered to produce “any and all documents in connection with federal funding of FSC and its affiliated cooperatives for the years 1976-79.” Someone had asked the FBI and Justice Department to get involved.
On February 7, 1980, the Federation turned over 10 file cabinet drawers of information (including 40,000 cancelled checks) to the Birmingham grand jury. The probe is now six months old. Still no one at FSC knows who or what the Feds are after. Inquiries by Federation staff members have gone unanswered. Birmingham’s U.S. Attorney J.R. Brooks refuses to talk about the investigation other than to say, “It’s ongoing. It’s secret.”
FSC staff members and supporters think the investigation is solely an attempt to discredit the Federation and thus reduce its effectiveness.
“We’re experiencing a frontal attack from our enemies in Sumter County,” Charles Prejean maintains. “People have been trying to destroy FSC from the beginning, only in the past the techniques have been more subtle. These White folks think that any money niggers get they got to be stealin’ it.”
“What we’re seeing,” Prejean went on, “is a deliberate attempt on the part of the U.S. Attorney’s office and the FBI to destroy the entire organization, without going into any reason for this action.”
John Zippert, FSC’s director of program operations, agrees.
“The White politicians were really disturbed that Blacks stuck together during the school boycott,” Zippert said, “They looked for a scapegoat and decided on the Federation.”
Both Prejean and Zippert say the Federation has not violated its federal funding guidelines—that any political activity FSC staff members participate in is strictly on their own time.
“We may be a catalyst,” Zippert acknowledged, “but we are not directly involving ourselves in political matters in Sumter County. It’s only natural that when people realize the problems facing them they begin to think politically. But our interest is in developing cooperatives for poor people, not in ripping off federal monies.”
Nonetheless, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is now under siege. As the grand jury investigation drags on, FSC is finding it difficult to devote important time to cooperative development and related activities. Nearly $20,000 has already been spent on a legal defense and more may be needed. Prejean, Zippert and other FSC staff members are spending dozens of hours each week trying to get more information on the probe, support from friends, and answers to official inquiries. In addition, private foundations are withholding grants until the investigation’s results are made known.
Fortunately, the threat to FSC has not stopped Sumter County Blacks from continuing to organize. The Sumter County Coalition, along with the Minority Peoples Council (MPQ have successfully purchased land near Epes so that Blacks can begin building low-cost housing. The MPC is attempting to gain more jobs for area Blacks with the $1.6 billion federally funded
Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway project. The Sumter County school system is being scrutinized closely by both groups to determine if public funds are being siphoned off to the segregated academies, as many believe is happening.
“We’re not going to roll over and play dead,” Sumter County Coalition leader Wendell Paris said. “We are going to obtain some control over our lives here. Mayor Pruitt and his daddy and the other Whites who run this county have run this county long enough. Black folks are in the majority here and we intend to fight for what is rightfully ours. We want to make this a better community for everyone.”[SIDEBAR]
Heading north from Meridian, Mississippi on Highway 11, one enters Sumter County, Alabama via York, one of a handful of motionless, soundless small towns which dot the rural county. After York comes Livingston, the county seat, with its picturesque town square complete with Confederate memorial. Tiny Epes is next on Jones Bluff, then Gainesville, one of Alabama’s oldest towns. It was at Gainesville that Confederate cavalry man Nathan Bedford Forrest surrendered his troops a month after Appomattox.
Sumter County is one of 10 Alabama counties that comprise the state’s “Black Belt”, so named because of its rich, alluvial soil and because over 60 percent of its inhabitants are Black. The Black Belt counties form a tier, stretching across the south central part of the state. Sumter is the western most county in the Black Belt, bordered on the west by the state of Mississippi, on the east by the Tombigbee River and its bulging limerock banks. To the north lie Touscaloosa and Birmingham; Mobile and the Gulf of Mexico are 120 miles southward.
The land of Sumter County is rolling and brilliantly green, generously covered with foliage and flora. Oak, cottonwood, hickory and cedar trees paint the earth, and, in springtime the dogwood blooms and makes the air smell strong.
Sumter County was founded in 1830, when White settlers obtained the land from the Choctaw Indians in the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit. Cotton soon became king, with slaves picking nearly one half million bales of cotton annually prior to the Civil War. By the mid-1800s, the Black Belt counties had achieved the most exalted aristocracy of any section of Alabama. And nowhere is it preserved in a larger area than Sumter County.
John Vodicka is a free-lance writer in New Orleans.