Seeding the First CLTs:
New Communities Inc.
Often called the “first CLT,” New Communities Inc. (NCI) was an outgrowth of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, as it unfolded in Albany, Georgia during the 1960s. The leaders of New Communities had also been leaders of the Albany Movement and the local field office for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Their hope in establishing this new form of tenure was to secure greater economic and political independence for African American farmers and their families who were being forced off the land by the mechanization of agriculture and in retaliation for registering to vote.
Launched in 1961, the Albany Movement was the first mass movement in the modern civil rights era to have as its goal the complete desegregation of an entire southern community. Albany’s all-white city council vowed this would never happen. Repeated attempts by the city’s African American community to desegregate the bus station, the library, city parks, and other public facilities were stubbornly resisted.
Segregationist resistance was sometimes a rather quiet affair: the public library was closed rather than allow blacks to check out books; nets were cut off the tennis courts in the public parks rather than allow integrated teams to play. More often, resistance from Albany’s white establishment was strident and brutal. Protest marches organized by the Albany Movement resulted in mass jailings. On orders of the city council, the police force of Chief Laurie Pritchett arrested every protester in sight, including Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, who had been invited to town by the Albany Movement. Both men were jailed there three times in 1961 and 1962, along with more than a thousand other African Americans.
Two brothers played a large role in these events. Slater King was the owner of a successful real estate and insurance brokerage firm in downtown Albany, employing 30 people at its height. His older brother, C.B. King, was the only African American attorney in southwest Georgia at the time, and one of only three African Americans practicing law in the entire state. Slater initially served as the Albany Movement’s vice president when it was founded in 1961; a year later, he was elected president. C.B. King headed the legal team that represented the Albany Movement and that negotiated for better treatment and eventual release of the jailed protesters.
Another key figure in the Albany Movement was an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) named Charles Sherrod. He had arrived in Albany in 1961 to open SNCC’s first field office and to lead SNCC’s voter registration campaign in southwest Georgia. He and two SNCC comrades, Cordell Reagon and Randy Battle, were especially effective in recruiting young people to the civil rights cause, including high school students and college students at Albany State. They also tramped through the rural counties surrounding Albany, exhorting sharecroppers, tenants, and small farmers to join mass meetings and to register to vote.
As a community organizer, Charles Sherrod witnessed first-hand the painful repercussions of political activism, as again and again African American families were evicted from their homes or fired from their jobs because they had raised their voices against segregation. He came to believe that the only way African Americans in the Deep South would ever have the independence and security to stand up for their rights – and not be punished for doing so – was to own the land themselves.
The president of the Albany Movement gradually came to the same conclusion – perhaps on his own; perhaps through the prodding of Charles Sherrod; or perhaps through his unlikely friendship with a white northerner who had come South for the first time in 1962 to help rebuild black churches that had been firebombed. His friend’s name was Bob Swann.
On the surface, Slater King and Bob Swann would seem to have had little in common. One was a black, college-educated real estate broker from Georgia whose activism was grounded in the Civil Rights Movement. The other was a white, self-educated homebuilder from the Midwest, ten years older than King, whose activism sprang mostly from his years of immersion in the Peace Movement. The social distance between them was made even wider in the mid-1960s by the mounting discord between blacks and whites, separating comrades who had fought side by side for the same cause.
Nevertheless, within a short time of meeting each other, Swann and King had fashioned a working relationship – and were on the way to becoming friends. Nobody knows for sure when they met or how they so quickly found common ground, but the most plausible answer is that their paths converged at Koinonia Farm.
Bob Swann had met Clarence Jordan in 1957, at an early organizational meeting for the Committee for Non-Violent Action. He and his wife, Marjorie, visited Koinonia Farm several times over the next decade. Around the same time, the King brothers were growing especially close to Clarence Jordan and other Koinonians. As early as 1957, C.B. King, Slater King, and their wives, Carol and Marion, began attending weekend dinners at Koinonia. At some point, it is likely that Slater King and Bob Swann met, possibly with Clarence Jordan making the introductions.
In 1966, back in the North, Bob Swann joined Ralph Borsodi in organizing a conference to discuss India’s Gramdan model of rural development and Borsodi’s plans for creating an institute that might seed and support that model in the United States. Among the conference’s attendees was Fay Bennett, executive secretary of the National Sharecroppers Fund (NSF) and a seasoned veteran of many struggles for social justice in the South. Bennett was deeply concerned about black farmers being forced off the land. In response, NSF had expanded its programing in the 1960s to include the construction of affordable housing and the creation of agricultural cooperatives, two strategies for combatting rural displacement. Bennett was intrigued by the idea of creating Gramdan-style leased-land communities for former sharecroppers and tenant farmers. A year after Borsodi established the International Independence Institute, she agreed to join the board of directors. The next year, in June 1968, NSF provided part of the funding to send a delegation to Israel to learn more about agricultural communities organized as a kibbutz or moshav, both of which were developed on lands leased from the Jewish National Fund.
Eight people made the trip to Israel: Fay Bennett; Bob Swann; Slater King and his wife, Marion; Lewis Black, a board member of the Southwest Alabama Farmers’ Cooperative Association; Leonard Smith, a colleague of Fay Bennett’s at the National Sharecroppers Fund; Albert Turner, field director for the Southern Conference Leadership Conference in Alabama; and Charles Sherrod, who had returned to Albany after earning a Doctor of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary.
These eight activists returned to the United States after a month in Israel, convinced that something like a network of agricultural cooperatives, developed on lands leased from a community-based nonprofit, might be a powerful model for the rural South. They introduced this idea at a July 1968 meeting in Atlanta to which they invited representatives of nearly every civil rights organization in the South with an interest in addressing the land problems of African Americans. A planning committee was formed to explore the feasibility of developing a leasehold model of rural development for black farmers.
In mid-1969, the bylaws drafted by C.B. King were approved by the planning committee. The name adopted by the committee was New Communities, Inc., described in the Articles of Incorporation as “a nonprofit organization to hold land in perpetual trust for the permanent use of rural communities.”
Three of the officers for this new corporation had made the trip to Israel. Slater King was elected president. Fay Bennett was elected secretary. Leonard Smith was elected treasurer. The corporation’s vice president was an African American priest from Louisiana, Albert J. McKnight. Father McKnight, along with Charles Prejean, had represented the Southern Cooperative Development Program and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives on the planning committee. At the time of New Communities’ founding, Father McKnight already had a long history of helping to develop rural cooperatives and credit unions. It was hardly a reach for him to embrace the notion of cooperatively managed farms and planned residential communities located on land that was leased from a community-controlled nonprofit.
The board of New Communities, under Slater King’s leadership, began immediately looking for land. They took an option on 5,735 acres located in Leesburg, about 30 miles north of Albany, using a $50,000 grant provided by the National Sharecroppers Fund. That left over $1 million they still had to raise before their six-month option expired. The whole process was almost derailed one month later, however, when Slater King was killed in an automobile accident. Despite this tragedy, the board decided to press on. Charles Sherrod was asked to assume the presidency of New Communities, a position he retained for many years.
New Communities Inc. (NCI) managed to close on the land on January 9, 1970, coming into possession of 3,000 acres of farmland and over 2000 acres of woodland – at the time, the largest tract of land owned by African Americans in the United States. NCI had to borrow most of the $1,080,000 purchase price. This meant that, for the next 15 years, most of NCI’s profits from raising and selling its agricultural products – corn, peanuts, soybeans, watermelons, hay, and beef – went into servicing the debt on its land. Although several families moved into buildings that already existed on the land prior to its purchase, NCI was never able to develop the two planned residential communities that had been envisioned by NCI’s founders. Federal funds from the Office of Economic Opportunity had been promised to New Communities to subsidize the construction of these settlements, but the grant was blocked by Lester Maddox, the segregationist governor of Georgia.
The economic risks of farming, the crushing debt on their land, successive years of draught, and discriminatory lending by the Farmers Home Administration made it harder and harder for New Communities to hang onto its land. They were forced to sell 1300 acres in the early 1980s. A few years later, the rest was lost to foreclosure.
Even though the land was lost, New Communities, Inc. did not dissolve. The corporation remained in existence. When black farmers in the South won a $375 million settlement from the United States Department of Agriculture in 1999, resolving a class action suit that had charged USDA with racial bias, New Communities Inc., filed a claim. NCI alleged that discriminatory lending by the Georgia office of USDA’s Farmers home Administration had contributed to the failure of NCI’s agricultural business and the loss of its land. In July 2009, after a decade of being rebuffed by USDA, New Communities was awarded $12 million.
Its board began searching for farmland to buy in the Albany area. On June 29, 2011, NCI purchased the 1600-acre Cypress Pond Plantation, creating a new chapter in the still-unfolding saga of New Communities.
- While still a student at Virginia Union Seminary, Charles Sherrod is jailed in Rock Hill, South Carolina for protesting segregation.
- The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is founded during a conference at Shaw University in North Carolina.
- Freedom Riders, recruited by CORE and SNCC, begin bussing throughout the South to test new laws that prohibit segregation in interstate travel.
- Charles Sherrod becomes SNCC’s first field secretary, moving to Albany, Georgia at the age of 23.
- College students from Albany State launch a sit-in at the Albany bus terminal in November.
- The Albany Movement is launched on December 17th. William G. Anderson is elected president. Slater King is elected vice president.
- Slater King becomes president of the Albany Movement.
- The Albany Movement stages demonstrations downtown, pressing for the desegregation of all public facilities. Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy are invited to Albany. They join the protests and are arrested, along with more than a 1000 other African Americans.
- C.B. King is assaulted by a county sheriff while attempting to visit one of his clients, a white civil rights protester.
- Nine of the Albany Movement’s leaders, including Slater King, are arrested and charged with conspiring to obstruct justice.
- John Lewis is elected the chairman of SNCC.
- Carl Braden, a journalist and field organizer for the Southern Conference Education Fund, travels across the South documenting civil rights struggles for SCEF’s newspaper, The Southern Patriot. Visiting Albany, he meets with Charles Sherrod and members of the Albany Movement.
- The Council of Federated Organizations, a network of civil rights groups that includes CORE and SNCC, launches a massive effort to register black voters during what becomes known as Freedom Summer.
- C.B. King is unsuccessful in his bid for election to the U.S. House of Representatives, the first African American in Georgia to run for Congress since Reconstruction.
- Leaders of the SCLC and SNCC, including Martin Luther King and John Lewis, begin a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights. The marchers are stopped in Selma by a police blockade. Fifty marchers, assaulted by police, are hospitalized on “Bloody Sunday.”
- Slater King writes a letter to the US Commission on Civil Rights, copied to President Lyndon B. Johnson, informing the Commission of the failure of Dougherty County and the City of Albany to hold overdue civil rights hearings and to alleviate discrimination and poverty.
- Charles Sherrod meets Shirley Miller during a voter registration meeting in Baker County, four months after the murder of Shirley’s father.
- John Lewis steps down as the chairman of SNCC and is followed by Stokely Carmichael. Under Carmichael’s leadership, SNCC embraces the philosophy of black power and expels white members from the organization.
- Charles Sherrod and Shirley Miller are married in September.
- Ralph Borsodi and Bob Swann organize a conference presenting the Gramdan model of rural development and Borsodi’s plans for creating an institute that might seed and support that model in the United States. Among the conference’s attendees is Fay Bennett, executive secretary of the National Sharecroppers Fund (NSF).
- Disagreeing with Stokely Carmichael’s policy of expelling whites from SNCC, Charles Sherrod resigns. He enrolls in Union Theological Seminary.
- The International Independence Institute is founded in Exeter, New Hampshire by Ralph Borsodi, who serves as both board chair and executive director. Two “field directors” are added to the staff: Bob Swann and Erick Hansch.
- Fay Bennett joins the board of the International Independence Institute.
- Slater King, Marion King, Charles Sherrod, Fay Bennett, Bob Swann, Leonard Smith, Lewis Black, and Albert Turner travel to Israel in June, a trip funded by the Norman Foundation and the National Sharecroppers Fund. On their return, they convene a meeting in Atlanta of representatives from a dozen civil rights organizations, encouraging the creation in the American South of something like the moshav model they had encountered in Israel.
- Clarence Jordan and Millard Fuller convene a gathering in August of fifteen trusted advisers to explore a new direction for Koinonia. Bob Swann and Slater King are in attendance.
- In September, a planning committee meets in Atlanta to begin discussing the structure and function of a “new model of land tenure.”
- On October 21st, Clarence Jordan sends a letter to Friends of Koinonia, setting forth his vision for partnership enterprises and partnership housing, the latter to be developed on leased land.
- New Communities Inc. (NCI) is incorporated, adopting bylaws drafted by C.B. King. NCI’s first officers are Slater King, president; Fr. Albert J. McKnight, vice president; Fay Bennett, secretary; and Leonard Smith, treasurer.
- Death of Slater King in April, killed in an automobile accident at the age of 42. Charles Sherrod is selected to be the new president of NCI’s board.
- C.B. King is nominated by the state’s black leadership as Georgia’s first African American candidate for governor. Although he does not win, his candidacy inspires large numbers of black people to register to vote.
- Death of Clarence Jordan in October, felled by a heart attack at the age of 57.
- New Communities purchases 5,735 acres of land near Leesburg GA, the largest tract of land owned by African Americas in the United States at the time.
- The Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education is incorporated by Charles and Shirley Sherrod.
- Lester Maddox, the segregationist Governor of Georgia, blocks federal funds committed by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) for the development of New Communities.
- The International Independence Institute publishes The Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model for Land Tenure in America, drawing heavily on New Communities for examples of how a CLT should be organized and operated.
- Fay Bennett retires from the National Sharecroppers Fund where she has worked since 1952.
- Charles Sherrod is elected to the Albany City Commission.
- Fr. Albert J. McKnight is appointed to the first board of directors of the National Cooperative Bank by President Jimmy Carter.
- The Community Land Trust Handbook is published by Rodale Press, authored by the Institute for Community Economics. It features an interview with Charles Sherrod, still serving as the President of New Communities Inc.
- Fr. Albert J. McKnight becomes Pastor of the Holy Ghost Catholic Church in Opelousas, Louisiana, one of the largest African American parishes in the USA.
- New Communities Inc. loses its land and buildings to foreclosure.
- John Lewis is elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
- National Community Land Trust Conference is held in Atlanta, co-hosted by ICE and the South Atlanta Land Trust. U.S. Representative John Lewis is the conference’s keynote speaker.
- Fr. Albert J. McKnight is inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame.
- Death of C.B. King in Albany, Georgia at the age of 65.
- Timothy Pigford, joined by 400 other African American farmers, files a federal lawsuit against Dan Glickman, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, alleging racial discrimination in lending by USDA’s Farmers Home Administration.
- Black farmers win a $375 million settlement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, resolving their class-action lawsuit (Pigford v. Glickman).
- New Communities Inc. files its own Pigford claim against USDA on October 13th, alleging that discriminatory lending by the Georgia office of the Famers Home Administration contributed the loss of its land.
- Hearing is held on July 30th for the discrimination suit brought by New Communities Inc. against the Farmers Home Administration and USDA.
- Groundbreaking and dedication is held in November for the C.B. King Federal Courthouse in Albany Georgia.
- Death of Fay Bennett Watts on December 19 in Shelburne Vermont.
- University of Fondwa is founded in Haiti. Rev. Albert McKnight moves to Haiti to serve as the university’s chaplain and to teach courses on cooperative development in rural areas.
- Shirley Sherrod is notified by the White House in July that she has been selected to be the new state director for Rural Development in Georgia.
- After a decade of being rebuffed by USDA, the Sherrods receive a call from their attorney, Rose Sanders, saying that New Communities Inc. has been awarded a settlement of $12 million.
- Shirley Sherrod is forced to resign from her position at Rural Development because of video excerpts from a speech she had delivered that were selectively edited and posted on the internet by a right-wing blogger.
- National CLT Network bestows its Swann-Matthei Award upon Charles & Shirley Sherrod.
- Cypress Pond Plantation is bought by New Communities Inc. on June 29th.
- Taylor Branch, “Almost Christmas in Albany,” Chapter Fourteen in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).
- Barbara Deming, Prison Notes (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1966).
- David J. Garrow, “Albany and Lessons for the Future, 1961-1962,” Chapter Four in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1986).
- Jeffrey Golden, Watermelon Summer: A Journal (New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1971).
- Shimon Gottschalk and Robert S. Swann, “Planning a Rural New Town in Southwest Georgia,” Arete, Journal of the Graduate School of Social Work, University of South Carolina, 2(1), 1970.
- International Independence Institute, The Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model for Land Tenure in America (Cambridge, MA: Center for Community Economic Development, 1972).
- Albert J. McKnight, Whistling in the Wind: The Autobiography of Fr. Albert J. McKnight (Opelousas, LA: Southern Development Foundation, Inc., 2011).
- Stephanie Mills, On Gandhi’s Path: Bob Swann’s Work for Peace and Community Economics (New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC: 2010).
- Glen Pearcy, One More River To Cross. A video documentary filmed in 1968 and 1969 in southwest Georgia. (It was digitized in 2012 and can be found elsewhere on the Roots&Branches website, under VIDEOs).
- Bob Swann, “New Communities—5000 Acres and One Million Dollars,” Chapter 20 in Peace, Civil Rights, and the Search for Community: An Autobiography (Great Barrington, MA: Schumacher Society for a New Economics, 2001).