Cornelius Blanding and Rev. Jesse L. Jackson
Atlanta, GA- On Thursday evening, August 15, 2019, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (FSC/LAF) will present its 18th Estelle Witherspoon Lifetime Achievement Award to Rev. Jesse L. Jackson for his leadership, support and contributions to rural southern people and communities. Several hundred guests attending will include rural farmers, landowners, corporate CEO’s, high-level government officials, and members of the Honorary Committee.
The award dinner to be held at the BJCC complex in Birmingham, Alabama marks the start of the Federation’s 52nd Annual Meeting. The Federation is a regional non-profit membership organization serving 20,000 low-income families organized in 75 cooperatives, credit unions and community development groups. The Federation focuses on providing services, resources, marketing and advocacy for its membership and is the premier Black farmers organization in the nation.
The Estelle Witherspoon Lifetime Achievement Award is reserved for honoree’s that work toward social change over a lifetime. Estelle Witherspoon was a founding member of the Federation and the manager of the Freedom Quilting Bee in Alberta, Alabama. The Freedom Quilting Bee, formed in 1966 by local women as an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement, became nationally known for creating colorful quilts. Past recipients have included: actors Danny Glover and Cicely Tyson, Congresspersons John Lewis, Barbara Lee, James Clyburn and Benny Thompson, author Alice Walker and others.
“We want to honor our leaders and allies in the Civil Rights Movement because their activism for equal rights blazed the trail for rural farmers to mobilize into cooperatives. Decades of vigorous organizing by the Federation has led to many legislative victories. Our most recent and major win includes transformational heirs property legislation, in the 2018 Farm Bill, brings new opportunities to save, protect and expand the landholding of black farmers and landowners. Leaders such as Rev. Jackson gave us momentum in our formative years.” said Cornelius Blanding, current Executive Director of FSC/LAF.
Jackson’s contribution to the Federation’s legacy is based on his civil rights work and in very specific partnerships. In the early years, due to his spearheading work in SCLC’s Operation Bread Basket, and later in Operation PUSH, he worked to open markets for rural southern farmers allowing them to link cooperatives to viable markets in Chicago and other cities. The Federation’s staff accompanied Rev. Jackson to Africa in 1987 to expand the work internationally. “We thank Rev. Jackson for opening the door for us to travel to Southern and Western Africa. As a result, the Federation was able to expand its footprint to help develop cooperatives in the region”, says Jerry Pennick, retired Director of Land Retention.
Land is one of the greatest and most valuable assets African American farmers possess. Black farmland ownership, which peaked in 1910 at 19 million acres, has shown a consistent decrease until recently. The most recent 2017 Census of Agriculture by the National Agricultural Statistical Service shows black land ownership to be at 4 million acres. Those numbers are looking promising but farm income has declined for all farmers, including Black farmers.
Activist John Zippert, retired FSC/LAF Director of the Rural Training and Research Center in Epes, Alabama, feels hopeful. “I recently attended the Bridge Cross Jubilee in Selma this March. In Rev Jackson’s speech, he shared his vision for rural economic reconstruction and renaissance starting in Selma and radiating out to Black Belt counties across the South. This is exactly what FSC/LAF has been dedicated to accomplishing for half a century, by mobilizing farmers, ranchers, and cooperatives in the rural South. We are sure that Rev. Jackson will speak to this vision in his acceptance of the Witherspoon Award.”
After the award dinner, the focus of the 52nd Annual Meeting will shift for the next two days, August 16th-17th, to the organization’s Rural Training and Research Center (RTRC) in Epes, Alabama. These days will feature workshops and business meetings of the organization The RTRC is the hub of operations for FSC/LAF and also the base of operations for the Alabama State Association of Cooperatives outreach and technical assistance staff.
Persons interested in attending and buying tickets for the Witherspoon Award Dinner and other events of the FSC/LAF 52nd Annual Dinner should go to the organization’s website at http://www.federation.coop for more details. You can also call the offices in Atlanta at 404/765-0991 or Epes, Alabama at 205/652-9676.