Back in 1972, at the Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., one of the delegates talked to anyone who would listen not only about solidifying the Black political base, but also building an economic foundation, which, in his opinion, was even more important than the political aspirations of those in attendance. While the meetings continued in Gary, and as he continued to express an economic point of view, the brother grew weary of trying to convince his fellow conventioneers to spend some time developing an economic plan of action.
He decided to return to his home in Ypsilanti, Mich. and make preparations to move back to Alabama and take on the very task he advocated in Gary. That man, Luke Edwards, set out to practice what he preached.
Remembering his childhood in Florence, Ala. and having witnessed his father sharecrop for a White farmer, Edwards decided he should have his own farm instead of working on a farm that belonged to someone else. He determined the way to economic freedom, especially for those of limited means, was to pool those limited resources and create businesses that would lead to self-sufficiency.
Five years after that historic meeting in Gary, in 1977, Luke Edwards started an initiative that has blossomed into one of the greatest examples of independent economic empowerment in this nation. It began one Sunday at church when he asked the congregation to consider a different lesson that morning -- an economic lesson, a stewardship lesson.
He asked each of the members to write down the amount of food stamps they received each month, from which he compiled the aggregate amount and showed the members how much "money" they had collectively. They pooled their food stamps, bought their groceries cooperatively, and received discounts, the money from which they saved for the next month. Their monthly savings eventually allowed them to be able to buy their own grocery store, and the rest is history, as they say. Collective and cooperative economics -- Ujamaa at work -- are now manifested in an economic movement unsurpassed in this country. It's called R.E.A.C.H., the acronym for "Research, Education, and Community Hope."
Celebrating its 30th year during the weekend of Sept. 28-30, R.E.A.C.H. proudly continues to build its legacy of self-help through collective and cooperative economics. There's more good news: You are invited to celebrate with them in Eutaw, Ala. R.E.A.C.H. is inviting everyone to come to Eutaw, Emelle, Livingston, and Demopolis, Ala. to share the fun and fellowship, and tour their vast array of properties, farms, communities and businesses. They want you to share in a huge cookout, attend a "down home" gospel concert, and meet the folks who have accomplished so much with so little.
I had the pleasure of meeting Bishop Luke Edwards and many of the brothers and sisters of R.E.A.C.H. in 2000 and again in 2001. I stayed in one of their motels, ate at one of their restaurants, bought gasoline from one of their gas stations, and got "food for the road" at one of their convenient stores. To me, just seeing all of the businesses and especially having the opportunity to support those businesses, was not only a real lesson in the power of economic empowerment, it was also confirmation of my work in spreading the "economic gospel."
The conversations I had with Bishop Edwards were enlightening, stimulating, and inspiring. He would often reflect on what could have been if only some of the Gary, Ind. Convention delegates had followed economic empowering principles in addition to the political paths they chose.
"I want what we have done down here in Alabama to be emulated all over this country," he said. "This is just a small portion of what we can do as a people for ourselves. All it takes is love, trust, determination, and a willingness to share. We have the dollars, but do our dollars have any sense? That is the question," he said smiling.
Bishop Luke Edwards, although in his 80s now, is still busy and plans to stay busy until he leaves this earth.
The successes abound at R.E.A.C.H., but not without setbacks, obstacles, and external and internal problems. The good news is that it has survived and thrived for 30 years, and we should be proud of its accomplishments.
A short list of the assets accumulated by R.E.A.C.H. includes 5000 acres of prime property in five counties, thousands of grain-fed cattle and hogs, a meat processing and packing plant, an elementary and high school complex with separate dormitories for boys and girls, motels and restaurants, an interstate highway truck stop, Greyhound bus stops that create a captive market for his restaurants, Western Union outlets, Citgo convenient stores and gas stations, an ostrich farm, a tire store, a shoe manufacturing company, tractor-trailer trucks, and all of the heavy equipment necessary for clearing land and building homes.
What Black person in this country is not proud of that?
James Clingman is the founder of the Greater Cincinnati African American Chamber of Commerce.