November 7, 2015

The co-op that changed the south

David Thompson, Cooperative Grocer - It was a small cooperative store on a little-known island off the coast of South Carolina. During the harshest days of the civil rights struggle, embattled black leaders came through its doors seeking inspiration. Among the legendary leaders who visited the co-op were Ralph Abernathy, Dorothy Cotton, Conrad Brown, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Bernice Reagon, Cleveland Sellers, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, and many others.

The co-op was called the Progressive Club. Johns Island is one of the Sea Islands, home to the unique Gullah people who had retained a lot of their African cultural heritage. In the 1940s, Johns Island was remote and a nine-hour ferry ride to Charleston, S.C. After WWII, bridges slowly began to connect Johns Island to the mainland.

What began in that co-op was a Citizenship School to teach blacks on Johns Island how to qualify to vote. Later, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference spread that program throughout the South. That one class in the co-op became thousands of classes in churches, schools, and homes. In 1962, the SCLC brought in other groups that then formed the Voter Education Project. Between 1962 and 1966, VEP trained 10,000 teachers for Citizenship Schools, and 700,000 black voters registered throughout the South. By 1970, another million black voters had registered.

Aldon Morris in his book Origins of the Civil Rights Movement wrote: “…the Citizenship Schools were one of the most effective tools of the movement.” That class at the co-op led to millions of blacks voting for the first time, and as a result, the South and U.S. history were changed.


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