Parishioners in rural Kaplan, La., just west of Lafayette, must have found their sophisticated new priest, Father Albert McKnight, a curious figure upon his arrival there in 1957. He was a priest who would later argue that the Catholic Church was fundamentally racist, all the while remaining a faithful member of it and working for healing and justice.
The Brooklyn native, one of the few African-American Holy Ghost (Spiritan) priests in the United States at that time, was possessed of a good education and a powerful intellect. One year after his ordination in 1952, he was assigned to a parish in Lafayette, deep in the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country. He also found himself serving communities like Kaplan with illiteracy rates of up to 75 percent.
Father McKnight started up literacy classes for the parish and persisted for two years until he finally admitted failure. He found he was unable to use the tool of literacy to overcome a greater problem in the community, what he called a “poverty of spirit.” He had to find another method to help build up the community.
Father McKnight traveled to Nova Scotia in the summer of 1960 to take a class on the philosophy of cooperativism and worker co-ops at theCoady Institute, established to continue the work of Canada’s Antigonish movement. The experience gave him the social vision for his ministry going forward.
“What we need to do,” he insisted throughout his life, “is reinvent the cooperative idea. If ever the cooperative approach was needed, it is today. It’s still a disgrace to Black folks that no place in the country do Blacks control economically.”
Father McKnight returned to Kaplan and launched a simple consumer co-op—memberships went for $5—after which the idea caught fire, spreading to nearby Abbeville and then beyond. He began to preach the Bible, people said, as a book of economics.
By 1962, his new Southern Consumers Cooperative had 2,000 Black farmer-members. A few years later, civil rights icon John Zippert, then an organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality in Louisiana, attended the S.C.C. annual meeting with a group of sweet potato farmers. The meeting launched the Grand Marie Sweet Potato Coop. (By 1967, Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman was filmed in Washington D.C. buying the first shipment of the co-op’s produce, the first to a major metro area.)
Mr. Zippert remembers that time of physical danger and activism for “the singing, the psychological and spiritual preparation.” He and his C.O.R.E. colleagues also noticed something interesting about those Black farmers who felt a little more economically secure, usually because they owned some land. In a community where dealing with “outside agitators” could be fatal, “They were receptive to talking with us, they were more independent.”
A co-op bakery, Acadian Delights, was next, offering specialty Cajun fruitcakes. It was the first recipient of a loan, for $25,000, from President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program.
Father McKnight then created the Southern Cooperative Education Fund as a way to spread knowledge of cooperative principles. The SCEF received $500,000 in 1967 to organize co-ops in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, with Father McKnight as director.
By 1969, the Ford Foundation was ready to give $500,000 to create the Southern Cooperative Development Fund, an idea which Father McKnight developed into a $30 million operation with several subsidiaries, making loans to more than 100 community groups in 11 Southern states. Over a 25-year period, he was in the vanguard of organizing 75 cooperatives, credit unions and minority businesses across the Southern United States.
A Greater Voice
This remarkable work enriched the lives of thousands of poor families and led Ebony magazine to call him a leader not only in the realm of economics but as a political force, influencing Blacks to run for office for the first time and to organize. As an Ebony article in 1968 about Father McKnight’s work put it, “The poor, in acquiring economic prestige, acquire a greater voice in politics and a freer rein to exercise their civil rights.”
Writing at a time of heightened civil unrest and violence in American cities, the magazine called Father McKnight’s efforts “a peaceful economic revolution…a co-op boom that could change the economic texture of the entire South.” Possibly thinking of efforts by groups like CORE and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee to organize Black sharecroppers, Ebony congratulated Father McKnight for succeeding “where more vocal militants have failed.”
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