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.
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.
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.