From the Archives: Remembering Rev. Charles Sherrod and New Communities
Under the burning Southern sun during the summer of '72, we rose each morning at the crack of dawn to live and sweat the visionary dreams of the late Rev. Charles Sherrod, who passed away last month. We heaved giant juicy watermelons in a human chain, person to person, from the field of tangled vines to the revved up giant tractor-trailer truck heading northward. I was part of a stream of young people who came South, inspired by Sherrod and his Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee colleagues, to commit to field work, embedding for months and even years in rural Southern communities.
As the street battles of the civil rights movement that had marked the '60s simmered and fragmented, the challenge of building counter-institutions quietly commenced. Young and old, privileged and marginalized, Black and white, Yankee and Southerner, all of us were bonded together in an enterprise dream of land-based liberation: could the largest piece of Black-owned land in America become a food source for Black communities up and down the East Coast?
We hoped Sherrod's project — New Communities Inc. in Southwest Georgia — would be ground zero in the process of birthing a new society of interracial rural empowerment. But in the tumult of the times, it just wasn't that easy to build an economically viable agricultural utopia in the heart of the racist South. New Communities suffered from internal conflict and labor-management fights.
Sherrod was a giant in the civil rights movement, a leader from the start. In the 1960s, Georgia's Albany Movement, led by Sherrod with early involvement from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had offered a national model for organizing a local community to fight for its rights. Sherrod galvanized the first public civil rights protests in Southwest Georgia, including an attempt to desegregate the city bus depot that resulted in hundreds of arrests — so many that the Albany jail overflowed and protesters were sent to neighboring counties. He was always committed to biracial activism, believing that working alongside white people was the only way to persuade rural white Southerners that Southern Black people were their equals. After the Albany movement, Sherrod founded New Communities, an experiment in Black-owned, democratic rural community building.
I ended up on Sherrod's New Communities farm in Albany after dropping out of college. My philosophy professor, who was friends with historian Howard Zinn and a leader in Resist, a group of Boston movement agitators, told me I needed to be in the South. So I went to New Communities, where Resist had connections. New Communities had taken on the weighty task of creating sustainable counter-institutions in the face of the violent, racist blowback to the civil rights movement epitomized by Richard Nixon and his segregationist colleagues.
When New Communities workers left the bubble of our utopian enterprise, we were quickly reminded that we were not just living out Charles Sherrod's dream. I particularly remember our visits to the public pool in Albany with our brash, biracial, multi-aged comrades. At a public facility that had been desegregated in the not-too-distant past, the cold stares and the snarky disdainful comments were not hard to miss.
Early on in my farm days, I met Bob Maurer, a radical Christian activist who was a dedicated believer in Sherrod's dream. He had been a fellow agitator with Bob Hall, another unholy divinity student who had glimpsed the light of civil rights. Later in the summer, I saw a copy of the Great Speckled Bird, the legendary Atlanta-based underground newspaper. In the classified section, an ad for the Institute for Southern Studies (ISS) called out to me: '60s civil rights activists were creating a radical research and social justice organization. Bob Hall and I would soon end up on the staff of ISS, then based in Atlanta.
As 1972 turned into '73, the Institute was dreaming up what would become Southern Exposure magazine. Land-based justice was an early focus of ISS and Southern Exposure — "who controls the land?" is a question dating back to the darkest days of the plantation economy. "Our Promised Land," an early, now-classic Southern Exposure issue published in 1974, wrestled with the region's agrarian legacy of extractive exploitation and tragic abuse of nature and humanity. I was on that issue's editorial staff.
We knew that Sherrod's Albany farm dream was a key part of the journey to the promised land evoked in the issue's title. Bob Hall, then the editor, and I asked Bob Maurer if he'd be willing to take on the task of describing the birth and evolution of the New Communities project.
Undertaking a journalistic analysis of a complex and fragile movement initiative presented difficult challenges for the infant Southern Exposure. Contextualizing New Communities' political and economic struggles and Sherrod's leadership was hard. In Maurer's article, republished below in remembrance and commemoration of Sherrod's life and work, Maurer asked a critical question: How does a charismatic leader shepherd a project past promising beginnings into long-term sustainability? In the landscape then, as now, securing long-term funding and buy-in for such a radical project proved difficult.
"Sherrod seems caught between the activist who founded NCI and the administrator who is now at the political center of a managerial group," wrote Maurer. As the economic and political complexities were still swirling in Southwest Georgia, he concluded, "The problems besetting NCI are far more serious now than they've ever been during the sometimes difficult course of this attempt to pull blacks together around a commitment to the land."
Judging and learning from the success of the complex social movements and their impact in the moment, as well as over the long arc of history, is the difficult challenge of both journalism and social activism. Reflecting, remembering, and pulling forward movement work of the past is an important part of shaping the movement struggles of the present and future.
Charles Sherrod and his vision of New Communities still live on in all of us, testaments to what might be possible in a truly just South. — Chip Hughes
In Southwest Georgia: Experiment in New Communities
By Robert Maurer
Two summers ago there were no weeds in the peanut fields of the largest black-owned farm in the United States. Survival, and even success, seemed within grasp. This past summer, however, some of the peanut fields were half covered with weeds. The five-year-old dream of a black economic stronghold in southwest Georgia, known as New Communities, Inc. (NCI), is still having problems.
The problems besetting NCI are far more serious now than they've ever been during the sometimes difficult course of this attempt to pull blacks together around a commitment to the land. Some participants have described the current situation as a classic labor/management conflict. One member of NCI's board (who has tried to mediate) said recently that the concepts upon which NCI was founded have been "severely damaged" by the conflict. As of mid- September, with only one of the difficulties settled to everyone's satisfaction, that same board member said: "I don't know how (the situation) will resolve itself."
New Communities began as two adjacent parcels of land, astride Route 19, which totaled 5,735 acres. These were combined in the winter of 1969-70 into one farm and were financed through $1.3 million in mortgages and $90,000 in loans. It was a big and expensive hunk to bite off by people who knew next to nothing about farming. But they had a powerful dream, and some proven organizing skills, and a decade-long reputation of never being run out of southwest Georgia. They were there to stay, but had already realized that civil rights organizing alone could not cement a permanent base for black political and economic development.
In the spring of 1971 an organizer recorded these fragments of the vision which gave birth to NCI: Mrs. Minnie Daniels, head of the day care center located on the farm — "Industry, light industry, would be a great boost to New Communities and to Lee County (in which NCI is located) as a whole. There would need to be a job training program with the industry because most of the peoples is unskilled labor."
Mr. Robert Christian, a member of NCI's board — "I feel that if we can get better housing, some type of housing program on New Communities. . . you can get people to change their entire attitude about life, they begin to do a lot of things differently."
Mrs. Barney, a local resident and potential settler on the farm — "We need doctors. We have to drive into Albany to the doctor, which is 30 miles. If we had doctors here and our own health clinic here, we wouldn't have to do that."
Mrs. Dolly Washington, 65, a local resident who has worked all her life on a farm —
I never owned a piece of land in my life. It's just so many peoples done left the farm. We need something to bring peoples back out the cities, back to the farm, or we gonna keep on goin' till people can't live. All the livin' and things come from the farm, and, therefore, if we don't get some folks back on the farm and caring for some of this land, something bad gonna happen. All the people that's crowded up in the cities, the inner city, the ghetto, talking about the ghetto and all that stuff. No sense to talkin' about fixin' up the ghetto; fix up the country and get these folks out of the ghetto, back in the country on the farm and raisin' something to live on. Give peoples a chance to make their own livin'.
A newsletter, published at the time of the acquisition of the twin parcels of land, heralded the new day of land, jobs, housing and industry owned and operated by poor blacks. An NCI foundation proposal written shortly afterward estimated that by 1975, 125 families would be housed and working on the New Communities farm.
Legally, the dream was protected by a land trust. Although the NCI board of directors, composed largely of local residents, possessed the ultimate legal and financial authority, the trust owned the land in perpetuity. No one person nor group of persons could sell the land, though portions could be leased by the board to settlers and others. Through those early years, in which every month brought yet another mortgage payment (nearly $1,000 a month went to the Prudential Life Insurance Company just for interest on its $1 million mortgage), NCI was tempted to sell some of its excellent timberland. But the farm, from the outset, was legally committed to reversing a one-hundred-year trend of black land loss.
A strategy for survival and then development emerged from those early years. The first step was to hold onto the land by meeting payments and avoiding foreclosure. The second step was to pay off the entire indebtedness and own the land outright. The third was to build the new communities on the land. In the summer of 1972 Charles Sherrod, an NCI founder who first came to southwest Georgia in 1960 as an SNCC organizer, put the strategy this way:
We want this piece of land. It's a feat in itself. Then we want to own it, and not have to owe anything on it. Housing, education system — we'll develop it. We want a new society — it won't use people or eat upon itself, doesn't cause people to be drug addicts, or make a school a jailhouse rather than a learning process. We want a society where a woman who rears a baby is just as meaningful as the tractor driver on the farm.
Sherrod's eloquent conception of the New Communities has had a magnetic attraction for many people. But when one sifts through the talk and the aura in order to focus on the day-to-day realities of the farm, there emerge the tough obstacles and major contradictions which have plagued NCI all these years.
It's been rough. In 1970 Lester Maddox, then governor of Georgia, vetoed a sizeable OEO development grant. As a result, only 700 acres were planted in that first year of operation. Except for a farm manager, there wasn't enough money for any other full-time farm or administrative personnel. The farming was essentially done by a dedicated group of hard-working organizers from the Southwest Georgia Project which Sherrod had founded earlier in the mid-sixties as a vehicle for gaining political power. Project people (who lived primarily in Albany) registered voters, protected blacks from white intimidation and performed other civil rights tasks while at the same time plowing peanut and soybean fields, repairing machinery, and picking okra at dawn and again at dusk. Automobile accidents, getting shot at and beaten, a house burning down (and leaving a farm family homeless for lack of funds to rebuild the home), white merchants refusing to extend credit for seed — these and many more obstacles hounded NCI in those early years.
In spite of these troubles almost 1,400 acres were planted in 1971, though not all were harvested. In addition, the Project established the Southwest Georgia Printing Company, with two offset presses and billings of $1,000 per month, and an Afro-American boutique. NCI committees on education, the farm, finance, industrial development, housing and health care were formed. By 1972 most of the elements of the strategy were in place in one form or another, awaiting that "take off" stage of development that would finally realize the dream.
My own association with those early years goes back to a rainy night in Albany, Georgia, in early 1971. I was waiting for a friend in his tin-covered second floor apartment above the "print shop" on South Monroe Street. The house next door was the headquarters of the Southwest Georgia Project which had given birth to New Communities two years earlier. The house was the center of activity, with people and cars coming and going all hours of the day and night. Project people drove the 30 miles north to the farm to harvest watermelons or get a truck out of the mud or whatever, and then returned to Albany. Although a few families lived in houses built on the farm before the acquisition, decision-making for NCI was done in Albany where the principal leadership lived.
I'd already gone to the john which consisted of a wooden hole in a seat located on a balcony near an exterior stairway leading to the ground floor. I was looking for something else to do, marveling at the experience my urban bottom had just had. Suddenly, a man came in. I watched him stumble toward me. For a moment I thought he was drunk. His speech was terribly slurred, and the straps of his overalls were twisted. But we talked for awhile and as I listened to his meaning in the midst of his stutterings, I was surprised by his knowledge of such diverse matters as accounting procedures and the program of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam. He spoke proudly of New Communities. Later, I recorded these observations:
Land is important to black people because it is a base. The movement in southwest Georgia has not produced too much physical evidence. We in the civil rights movement have a lot of freedom to move around and people admire that. We have demonstrated that it is not always fatal to go against the wishes of the white people. What we have not demonstrated is that it is also productive, that it also can be rewarding at the same time, and this is what New Communities can demonstrate. It can prove that we can go against the wishes of the whites in this society and at the same time progress. There is a lot of land out there. We must succeed at this to keep up the hopes of the people.
Robert McClary, quoted above, and others have tied their personal futures to such hopes. His was quite a statement, considering that he was a cripple from birth and that the local "sport" in a town only three miles from the farm was killing blacks. But, NCI had fully accepted him. Already assistant treasurer, he had entered the local university to take courses in business administration in order to increase his usefulness to New Communities.
Those were some of the dreams — and hardships — of those early years. Sherrod boarded planes for New York and Washington, D.C., almost as often as he drove his car up to the farm from his residence in Albany. He raised money, talked with consultants, dickered with foundations, recruited volunteer harvesters. New York was as much home territory for him as southwest Georgia, in part, because liberal money was the central means of paying the notes, in part because he had attended Union Theological Seminary and knew the turf. Occasionally criticized for letting things languish back home, nevertheless, Sherrod, an adept maneuverer whose convoluted tactics sometimes appeared as just plain disorganization, hustled blacks and whites alike to accomplish the first step of the strategy. A northern Coalition to Save New Communities was formed to involve a diverse group of artists, ministers, publishers, poverty bureaucrats and elected officials in the dream. The coalition raised emergency money to pay the interest on the mortgage notes and provided other forms of financial backing as well.
Sherrod attracted dedicated blacks from New York, Oakland, and elsewhere outside the South to work full time on the farm during the winter of 1972. As I recall, five dollars a week plus expense allowances for food and shelter was the going rate then. Sherrod told northern blacks, "We want to hold that land down there because we know y'all, some of you, want to come back home." In almost every case, however, the blacks attracted by Sherrod during this period had never before lived in the South. And the mix of southern rural blacks and northern/western urban blacks caused some persistent tensions.
For three weeks during the summer of 1972, I was a part of a group of sixty volunteers who came mainly to harvest watermelons. It was a nightmare, with suburban white youth and ghetto black youth working (and mostly not working) together for the first time in their lives. But that's another story. As far as NCI was concerned, the appearance of these volunteers and their northern organizers was part of a short-lived effort to create an alternative economic system of distribution which by-passed both the retailer and the wholesaler. It was a sign of NCI's interest not only in its own survival, but also in hooking up its agricultural output to the poor people in urban areas. The alternative system was to have worked this way: produce would be harvested by summer volunteers, and when they returned home, they would organize food co-ops in community centers, day care facilities and so forth. Ultimately, food from co-operative farms would be shipped directly to these community co-op food outlets.
While current food co-ops primarily depend upon the wholesalers for their supplies, the alternative system then envisioned by NCI would by-pass even the wholesaler, so that the farm-to-customer system would undercut even the wholesale price. The co-operative farms would benefit financially as well, since they could sell their produce to the alternative distribution system at a higher price than they could to the commercial wholesaler who depressed prices on the farm end.
One truckload of NCI watermelons, loaded on the farm by volunteers that summer and unloaded twenty-four hours later by volunteers in Harlem, was sold cheaply through a hastily arranged community distribution set-up. But the alternative system functioned only that once, due to a lack of organization on the northern distribution end.
Whatever the outcome of this part of the dream, the experiment highlighted NCI's dependency on the commercial market for its survival. Because of the farm's large financial needs (mortgage payments, seed and fertilizer, machinery, and so forth), NCI has had to find contracts for its peanuts and soybeans or sell its vegetables in the commercial market. As a result the farm has to operate according to capitalist ground rules. For example, the 1971 watermelon crop was plowed under, rather than harvested, because the wholesale price was so low. On the other hand, NCI made a killing in 1973 because the wholesale price of soybeans was extremely high. Thus, NCI must engage in the same profit-oriented game played by every other large farm in order to obtain the highest price for its produce. This sometimes means a further investment in equipment (e.g., a proposed corn-drying machine so that corn can be held off the market until the price is highest), which, in turn, plunges the farm into further indebtedness. In essence, then, although it may call itself a co-operative, NCI's marketing choices are severely limited by the realities of a capitalist framework of distribution.
In the spring of 1973, dramatic changes came to NCI. Harrison Miller, an energetic and knowledgeable employee of the USDA Extension Service for twenty-three years, was hired as the new farm manager. He had a thousand and one ideas for improving the farm and inspired a certain confidence that those ideas could be implemented. The hiring of Miller was coupled with the sale of a debenture which raised $350,000. That money was then paid to Prudential both to cover the total interest on the mortgage and to pay off some of the principle. In effect, the debenture, which would be repaid to the subscribers at a lower interest rate than Prudential had been charging, was a means of rescheduling NCI's indebtedness to give the farm some breathing room. Cash was now available in the treasury. Salaries were paid to a full-time administrative staff, as well as to a full-time farm crew and part-time assistants during harvests. Tape-decks appeared in farm vehicles; food was provided free to the volunteer harvesters for the first time — small items, but indicative of change.
NCI erected a farmer's market by the side of Route 19, with hand-painted signs advertising the market up and down the highway. Previously, the farm had been particularly cautious about its location, urging volunteer harvesters not to tell local merchants where they were working. Unlike other farms in the area (owned by whites), NCI did not hang out a sign with its name on it. But black-white relations in the county were beginning to improve. Larry Durgin, who headed the northern Coalition to Save NCI, recalls that during this period a local white man driving a bread truck stopped at NCI's market. He came up to Durgin, a white minister, who just happened to be in the market, and asked if he thought these (black) people would do business with him! The next year, the county public works department finally built a long-awaited bridge across a creek on NCI's property. Those stories illustrate the fact that NCI's staying power has made whites in the area begin to respect at least the farm's abilities at farming — and at paying bills. A dollar is a dollar, no matter from whom it comes, the bread salesman, among others, seemed to say.
Almost overnight NCI was transformed. Weedkillers and insecticides went into the ground on schedule reducing the weeds and thrips which, in previous years, had wiped out one-quarter of the peanut crop. Grapes were planted, hogs and then a herd of cattle were purchased. For the first time in its three-year history, the farm's income from sales equalled its operational costs. The Coalition to Save New Communities decided not to raise funds until further notice. Sherrod rarely travelled North anymore but spent a lot of time on the farm. Decision-making for NCI now took place in an office located on the farm itself. The first step of the strategy — saving the land — had been accomplished. There was optimism about the future.
The land about which so many dreams have been dreamt lies in the flat, sandy corner of Georgia snug against the borders of Alabama and Florida. It is pecan country. It is also watermelon country. But when the rain was overdue last summer, the city of Los Angeles volunteered to fly in 2,000 watermelons just so the county seat could have its traditional Watermelon Festival. NCI gets top dollar now for its watermelons, as well as some envious glances, whether at the local farmer's market or in Atlanta. The soil supports a wide variety of crops, and NCI's agricultural plan has taken advantage of that. Cattle-raising harks back to the days when cattle grazed on a parcel of NCI's property then owned by a relative of Martin Luther King. With so many fields planted on a farm which takes twenty minutes to drive from tip-to-tip, it is easy to forget that approximately one-half of the acreage is not tillable. Swamps, timber stands, creeks, county roads and the like resist the plow. Of the tillable land, not more than two-thirds (2,000 acres) has ever been fully planted.
NCI has begun to implement its plan to turn a creek and adjacent forest into a recreation area. On the fourth of July of each of the last two summers, a "Pamoja'' Festival has been in full swing for residents of the area. ("Pamoja" means togetherness in Swahili.) While its advertisements have reflected more hopes for what the Festival could be than what has actually occurred, the fourth of July has at least been co-opted as a day to relax with local supporters and celebrate the harvest time.
Whatever the long-range hopes for a recreation area on the farm, the basic fact of NCI's life is work.
But there has always been a rhetorical aura surrounding that work; namely, that NCI was a "co-operative,'' i.e., a democratic and educational process which distributed the sense of ownership to everyone working on the land. This aura extended to the day when NCI would show a profit and the "community" would decide how the profit would be spent.
But in July of 1973, a full year before the present conflict, a prophetic event occurred. A spontaneous, one-day strike broke through the rhetoric to reveal, in that moment, how the farm really operated.
For the past several summers children and teenagers have worked in the 40-odd acres devoted to okra, peas, butter beans and the like. These youngsters, that acreage, and the previously mentioned NCI farmer's market have been an important part of the dream. Supposedly, as these youngsters learned about the goals of NCI (which never really happened), later in life they might remain in rural Georgia instead of moving to the big city. They might even move onto the farm itself one day. In addition, the vegetables they picked would be immediately available, through NCI's farmer's market, to people in the area or to tourists driving along Route 19. The money from sales of the youngsters' output (except for watermelons) never amounted to much, but their presence represented the farm's investment in the future, as well as a gesture of goodwill to the local community.
During that fateful July two summers ago, NCI was paying 15 to 25 youngsters $1 for each hamper of okra picked. (And if the kids preferred the shade of a tree to the hot, stickly okra field — as was sometimes the case — then at least, the farm figured, it was not losing any money because it was not paying an hourly wage.) At the time, okra was bringing $6 a hamper at the farmer's market in Columbus. The next week, however, the price in Columbus dropped to $5. And an NCI manager immediately lowered the youngsters' share to $.75 a hamper. The youngsters were justifiably angry. They literally sat down, under a shade tree, and refused to work. Although it was spontaneous and unorganized — and a good excuse not to work that day — it was, nevertheless, NCI's first strike. Although the youngsters worked the next day with a good deal of grumbling, it was not until the third day that the top manager, Harrison Miller, straightened out the situation and restored the former wage. In this instance, he agreed with the idea that a lowered wholesale price should not be partially deducted from the youngsters' pay.
There were disturbing aspects to this situation, however. A hole had been punched in the NCI rhetoric of "community.'' For one thing, no "labor policy” existed for these young workers; and even if one did, the youngsters would not have been part of the discussions. Rather, "policy" was made on the spot by whichever of the four managers happened to be around at the time. In addition, when a policy was reversed, no one offered the youngsters much explanation for either the first or second decision. Whatever morale which might have been encouraged by the dedicated minister supervising the youngsters' work (he was not a part of the wage decisions), dissipated during those three days in July.
When the volunteers arrived at NCI this past summer, a labor policy of sorts was in effect, though apparently most of the workers had not been consulted. The most prominent aspect of the change was the time-clock. To the workers who now had to punch in and out, the clicking of the time-clock seemed an ominous symbol of regimentation. Certainly a system of keeping track of hours worked was needed to satisfy governmental regulations, but the introduction of this technique also introduced the idea of a regular, set number of hours (nine) to be worked each day. Workers did not have to come in on Saturdays, and in effect, a "quitting time" was established. That idea, in itself, cut sharply across the notion that NCI was a "struggling community” dedicated to an all-out effort, no matter how long it took, each and every day.
Of course, sudden thunderstorms which delayed harvesting, or wholesalers ordering 500 bags of Irish potatoes due the first thing the next morning were not geared into NCI's new labor policy. When it came quitting time, and only 300 bags of potatoes had been sorted and filled, what were the workers supposed to do? Management at first prevailed upon them to stay until the order was filled — until 10 p.m. on some nights. But several days of this were enough, and most workers, at first reluctantly, then easily, drifted away at quitting time, no matter what still needed to be done. The volunteers, just as sweaty and tired from a long day in the fields, also drifted away. Orders were delayed, potatoes rotted in the field as well as in bags left too long in the shed.
The time-clock and the idea of a quitting time also helped drive a wedge deeper between the workers just described and the Project people who had always seen their commitment as a 24-hour-per-day kind of thing. The aura of a "community" was fast disappearing.
But the time-clock was not the only new policy which began to separate the goals of NCI from the very people upon whom, in part, the goals achievement rested. The matter of wages also posed difficulties.
Full-time people, like tractor drivers, were paid $1.60 per hour, no matter how many hours they worked in a week. Summer-time workers got either $8 a day (the older ones) or $5 a day (the younger ones). Several times during the summer watermelon harvest, the youngsters loaded an NCI truck (which often brought $700 in Atlanta the next morning) until 8 or 9 p.m. without any increase in pay for those extra hours. They couldn't leave at quitting time because they relied on the farm to take them home. On the one hand, the farm managers said the youngsters should not be paid more because they did not work every hour each day. On the other hand, the lack of a full day's work often resulted from disorganization among the farm managers. While the management contended they were paying wages equivalent to those in the area, others said that even if this were the case, the wages were exploitative and NCI, because of its avowed goals, should be paying more.
I do not pretend to know very much about operating a large farm, but from my experience as a volunteer, it seemed that "quitting time" did not provide the flexibility in the workday necessary for all the pressing tasks to be accomplished. The idea of work in the Movement which founded NCI, and which then saved the land, was that of a full-time commitment, putting in hours whenever they were needed. Of course, child labor laws necessarily restricted hours for the youngsters. But for the other workers, the idea of a "normal" working day and NCI's inability to assimilate them into the rhetoric of the dream finally canceled any incentive they might have had for putting in extra time to fulfill the harvest production goals. The "moral incentives" which had previously created NCI and motivated a hard-working core of people to see it through its early years were absent. And the "material incentives" were clearly not enough of a motivation to overcome that loss.
One year after the spontaneous sit-down strike by the youngsters, many workers regularly spoke of a strike and of a confrontation with management. The vision of a community of people sitting down together to discuss and work out their differences suffered a severe blow on July 20 when a group of workers addressed their grievances to the NCI board of directors in a 17-page, single-spaced document. The act of bringing their grievances before the board was, in itself, a solid indication of the breakdown of the idea of "community." The workers had bypassed the Farm Committee which now supposedly functioned as the place where everyone working on the farm met to decide policy in a one-person, one-vote manner. Although this committee was supposed to be the democratic mechanism for proving that a Movement ideal could operate within the setting of a large business, the majority of workers rarely came to its weekly meetings, despite occasional encouragements from management.
At a deeply searing and painful nine hour, nonstop board meeting on July 20, some New Communities folk hoped the conflicts might still be contained within the "extended family" so that something of the idea of "community" could be preserved. The pain for some present was akin to the disillusion felt by activists in the Sixties who now look around and wonder what has happened to all those ideals. More than NCI's dreams were on the line during that meeting in the farm's day care center. Those present were also evaluating the evolution of the behavior and principles of a generation of blacks who have fought — and died — in the South for their beliefs! Was NCI, as one board member feared, only changing the face of power, leaving power relationships intact? Had all the hours in jail, all the blood, the countless meetings and marches of the Sixties evolved into a new nightmare of the abuse of power by those who were previously abused?
Joe Brooks, executive director of the Emergency Land Fund and NCI board member who has been considering resignation, called the farm a "boss-run factory.” James Pierce, executive director of the Rural Advancement Fund and another NCI board member who is weighing his resignation, recently said: "I want no part of any organization that substitutes black plantation owners for white plantation owners.” Both men, through their organizations, have provided substantial support for NCI over the years.
Several weeks after the July meeting, the workers' charges were largely sustained by a balanced investigatory committee of board members. Those charges included not only wages and hours, but also health and safety hazards, favoritism for the Project people, poor management, and absence of a grievance procedure. As of mid-September, only one complaint had been resolved to the satisfaction of the principle sides. The management agreed to redress individual wage grievances and thus paid the appropriate back wages. It also raised wages to $2/hour for tractor drivers and certain other workers, and $1.60/hour for all others, including the youngsters. According to one board member, NCI could have been fined $1,000 per worker by the Department of Labor if the farm had not taken care of this matter first.
In general, however, the several sides were barely discussing — and certainly not negotiating — the other outstanding conflicts. Some of the workers had called in the United Farm Workers representatives in Florida to discuss unionization at NCI. They also went to the press with their side of the story. And they began contemplating a letter to foundations asking for a termination of NCI funds. The classic labor/management conflict on the farm was spawning classic labor tactics by the workers off the farm. The issues now went beyond the "extended family." Several more shovelfuls of dirt had been tossed on the ideals which founded New Communities.
Finally, despite the importance of what the workers said and how management responded (or did not respond), the main issue is why the conflict occurred in the first place. Three major factors interacted to foster the conflict. The first is the capitalist framework in which the farm must operate. The second is "the family" which actually runs the farm. And the third is Charles Sherrod.
A decision was made in the winter of 1972-73 that the farm had to pay for itself. Before that time it was run inefficiently and its survival depended upon outside funds. While no one disagreed with the decision, it was naively assumed at the time that "New” and "Communities" could be maintained as accurate descriptions of the farm while it was run like a business.
But as the tillable acreage expanded, as new machinery was either purchased outright or on credit, as more people arrived on the land to work, as a bookkeeping system was devised, more and more administrative control became necessary. Harrison Miller, as the man hired to assume that control, has held up the Army as his model for efficient organization. That comment is not meant as a personal slur, for I respect and like the man. Rather, it is meant to demonstrate that given the naivete of NCI's assumptions about the workability of combining a political democracy with an efficiently-run business, Miller, or someone like him, would have been hired in any event. The farm already had an exponent of the vision in the person of Charles Sherrod. All the demands placed on the central administrator by the many, many implications of that winter decision created a strong tendency to make someone into "the boss." And Miller took on that task quite seriously. The "Incorporated" in its name began to ascend as the chief symbol of the dynamic of NCI. In general, the words chosen for the name of the farm heralded from the beginning the fundamental contradictions which came full flower this past summer.
But the hiring of Miller was not the only factor in setting NCI at cross-purposes. Miller's niece was Charles Sherrod's wife. One of Miller's brothers was also a manager at NCI, and his sister-in-law was a member of the board. These kinship ties, coupled with the strong relationships forged among the Project people (who related to the farm primarily through Sherrod), actually meant that the decision of '72-'73 created a managerial class at NCI. Many of the workers simply call them "the family." When the chips were down, as they were this past summer, "the family" worked together as a unit based upon shared assumptions and loyalties. As a direct result of the efforts of this managerial class to make the farm succeed under capitalism, a pattern of administration arose which created a class of people who realized their situation viz-a-viz the managerial class this past summer — and called themselves “workers." This latter class is composed of everyone who is not related (by blood, marriage or loyalty) to "the family”; it includes those board members (small businessmen and executive directors of various organizations) who supported them. This neat tally of the opposing camps is not as straightforward as it appears, however, since the workers have within their ranks several families as well. In any event, this analysis of the factors which have led to the conflict in the first place strongly suggests that the decision to make NCI pay for itself created the conditions in which a group of individuals became conscious of themselves as a class of exploited workers. The rhetorical aura of "new communities" evaporated like the morning mist in the face of the naive application of that winter decision.
What about Charles Sherrod?
It would take another article to do him justice. He's not easily cast in one particular role. But he remains the pivotal person for the ultimate success or failure of NCI. He also remains something of a mystery, at least to this author. And the following are more impressions than reporting.
Sherrod seems caught between the activist who founded NCI and the administrator who is now at the political center of a managerial group. What does the charismatic leader do when he's performed the miracle of getting the dream off the ground and then is faced with all the internal conflicts which the "take off" stage of the operation always entails? Last summer he alternately urged the workers to get their case together to vie for power (like an old organizer teaching the next generation) and unequivocably and forcefully opposed the workers' demands because they would harm NCI as he envisioned it (like an old boss blocking the next generation).
He's no longer the tireless hustler for outside funds; he's no longer NCI's board chairman; and he's no longer organizing in southwest Georgia because the Project is defunct, except for the two businesses (print shop and boutique) it spawned. Most of his time is now spent on the farm itself, filling in the gaps where work is most urgently needed. He loves to repair electrical motors and other mechanical gadgets whose intricacies engage his considerable powers of deduction. (He's also an avid chess player.) Overall, however, he seems aimless, or rather like a person whose former path has been effaced by the passage of time, and he doesn't know which way to go next. His skills were vital in the southwest Georgia of the sixties in which racism caused blacks to cross to the other side of the street whenever whites walked toward them. Those skills saved the land as well. But with NCI in a new ballpark now, it seems that his kind of leadership, so well disposed to take on both reactionary and liberal whites, has not been far-sighted enough to find the ways to bring the people at NCI together.
Even as he said recently, "This has been traumatic for all of us, but it has brought us closer together," I had the sinking sense of a barn door closing after the horse was loose. Even as he said, "We don't want to divide ourselves into labor and management, and we're trying to break down that division," I felt sad that he would ever have to make such a statement.
The youngsters have returned to school. The strike which was called in August dwindled until only three workers were out of the fields. The peanut, sweet potato, corn and other late summer crops were harvested. Some old NCI hands now believe that all the conflicts exposed that July 20 were the work of one person, Robert Johnson, an energetic and aware ex-Muslim who was hired last April, brought the grievances and structural problems to the boiling point in July, was fired but remained to organize the strike, and then left for his California home in September. Just an "outsider" who had stirred up the trouble and then had been expelled, some rationalized. Now everything would return to normal. Indeed, Johnson was the main organizer and spokesman for the workers. But how often was that "outsider theory" used in the sixties by whites in power to cover up the problems already present in their midst? How tragic to have heard it used at New Communities.
An accurate summary of the conflict was made recently by Harry Bowie, associate director of the Southern Regional Council and chairman of NCI's board. He said that "an old dream is bound to become a nightmare if it is not continually tested by reality.”
New Communities, Incorporated, had a heavy dose of reality this past summer. I don't know how the contradiction will resolve itself. But, just observing whatever weeds might be in those peanut fields next summer is not enough. They must be pulled up and their roots exposed to the sun.
Chip Hughes is a former staff member of the Institute for Southern Studies and Southern Exposure, and spent three decades directing the Worker Training Program in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Southern Exposure is a journal that was produced by the Institute for Southern Studies, publisher of Facing South, from 1973 until 2011. It covered a broad range of political and cultural issues in the region, with a special emphasis on investigative journalism and oral history.