In the early 1900s, W.E.B. Du Bois proclaimed that, “As the south goes, so goes the nation.” In this statement, he was speaking to both the ugly and the beautiful complexities of American society. On the one hand, he was illuminating the link between regional and national trends of racial tensions, unjust policies, and economic opportunities. On the other hand, this statement also encompasses the spirit of resistance against injustice that has often rose in this region and rippled out to the rest of the nation. These words continue to speak true as news comes of the stunning tragedy in Charleston and nationally in this moment of rising social consciousness to the issues of mass incarceration, police brutality, and widespread resistance to the loss of black lives.
Mississippi, perhaps more than any other state, exemplifies today’s civil rights battles with the highest rate of incarceration and highest poverty rate, among other worst rankings of obesity and educational achievement. Despite these cold statistics, Mississippi also has a long rooted history of social struggle and was a hot-bed for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The people of Mississippi continue that legacy today with a strong belief in a bright future for their communities.
I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from Mississippi’s leaders in civil rights through my summer internship with One Voice Mississippi. I will be supporting One Voice’s work on issues of environmental justice, economic opportunity and building local democracy by focusing on energy and economic development in rural Mississippi. In the New Deal Era of the 1930’s, there was a nation-wide push to electrify rural America, which at that time consisted of 50% of the total population. Electric infrastructure, such as power lines, were very expensive to develop over long distances and, thus, private power companies were unwilling to take the lead in this effort. This gave way to the establishment of almost 1,000 rural electric cooperatives for the ¬¬electrification of the nation.
Yet electricity and membership remained exclusive for many years due to the system of sharecropping and tenant farming upheld by former plantation owners. Once the majority of homes became electrified, the jobs and decision-making positions in the cooperative had already been established by previous white land-owners and, in many places, continues to define the control of these cooperatives.
Today, several of these cooperatives are sitting on millions of dollars of membership revenues that could be utilized for local economic development or for reimbursement to the members. Unfortunately, due to the exclusivity of the cooperative board decision-making, there is little oversight or opportunity for these members to get involved. Our project will work with rural cooperative members to develop understanding of the cooperative and how they can begin to play a stronger role in the organizations to ensure that their money is used for community revitalization. The goal is that, down the road, these cooperatives will be a place for community-building, inclusive democratic processes, and a source of wealth regeneration for the community.