Co-ops and the Civil Rights Movement

Co-ops and anti slavery movement

Co-ops & the Civil Rights movement

The wonderful  New England Neighboring Food Co-ops Gathering opened with a keynote address by David Thompson, who’s based in California but was born in Blackpool! David has written extensively about the history of the co-op movement and his address was a great education for me, focussing on the alignment of co-ops with the civil rights movement over the years. With so many shared egalitarian and democratic values it shouldn't come as a huge surpise that the two movements have had a close relationship, but it was a part of our history I knew nothing about.

I’d had no idea, and was very proud to learn, that Rochdale mill workers were among the few in Lancashire to take a stand against the pro-slavery South during the American civil war, despite the devastating impact that the cotton boycott was having on their livelihoods. The Anti Slavery Society of England also met regularly in the co-op’s meeting rooms.

Or that former slave Frederick Douglass (author of ‘Autobiography of a Slave’) spent a lot of time in Rochdale around the time the Rochdale Pioneers were setting up shop, and was great friends with the great Rochdale co-operative advocate John Bright, himself a vociferous abolitionist. Douglass was also hosted on his abolition crusade by early Scottish co-operators the Fennick Weavers. 

Or, that the early slogan of the Co-operative Wholesale Society ‘Labor and Wait’ was spelled the American way specifically to demonstrate support for the anti-slavery movement.

Jumping forward a century or so, we also learnt how co-operatives provided economic ownership and voting rights for African Americans many decades before these freedoms were won in society at large. Some of the earliest housing co-ops in the USA were formed to enable black people to own their own homes at a time when their ability to do so was heavily curtailed. We heard how a co-operative model of citizen education was at the heart of civil rights organising in South Carolina, numbering Rosa Parks amongst its students. She attended the Citizen Education School just three months before her act of defiance on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama turned her into an international icon. 

I could go on and on but for a bit more on this see this article by David published by the Co-operative Grocer Network.

Thanks David, for a long-overdue education on this topic, and for challenging us to seek out ways co-ops can better engage with social justice issues and challenge oppression today. 

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