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Elias CrimMarch 02, 2021
Image of Father Albert McKnight courtesy of The Congregation of the Holy Spirit

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 Albert McKnight argued that the Catholic Church was fundamentally racist, all the while remaining a faithful member of it and working for healing and justice.

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.”

Cooperative Innovation

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.”

He began to preach the Bible as a book of economics.

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.”

Ebony called Father McKnight’s efforts “a peaceful economic revolution…a co-op boom that could change the economic texture of the entire South.”

But the truth is that economic justice was always a central concern of the larger freedom movement of these years. After all, the motivation of many white leaders was to preserve their economic domination, more than any nostalgia for the Old South. Co-ops and similar forms of self-help—which Black communities were eager to embrace—represented a threat to the Jim Crow goal of cheap Black labor. New economic opportunities and political rights for Black folk meant loss of control for white owners.

In 1969, Father McKnight and several of his colleagues received an invitation from Histadrut, the Israeli labor movement, to visit the kibbutzes and moshavim (individual farms with collectivized operations) of that country. He later wrote that witnessing the sense of community in these Israeli enterprises shook his Christian commitment for a time. Within three years, a family farm cooperative project was born.

A new figure on the scene in the mid-1970s was Ronald Mason, a young attorney and protégé of Father McKnight’s who went on to work for Tulane University and then became, in succession, president of Jackson State University, Southern University and the University of the District of Columbia. His responsibilities under Father McKnight varied from managing the Southern Cooperative Development Foundation’s Land and Equipment Leasing Company to serving as Father McKnight’s Executive Counsel to managing the moshav vegetable farm in southeast Louisiana—300 acres devoted to shifting agriculture in that region away from cotton. He once bailed out Father McKnight from an Opelousas jail after he was arrested in a protest.

Mr. Mason described their team: “Mack wanted to put together a bright group of college graduates to come work for him. We were all in our 20s and we thought we were going to change the world. He was always stressing intellectual development to us, taking us on retreats. One was in upstate New York, run by an Irish priest who had a center focused on quantum physics.”

“I think there was a time when a person like McKnight might become a bishop,” said Nate Tinner-Williams.

The moshav project, however, struggled and became contentious. Eventually Mr. Mason quit after a fight with Father McKnight. Instead of leaving, though, he chose to run for the board of the S.C.D.F. and won a seat. “Mac and I stayed best friends for the rest of our lives,” Mason said. “And we proved conclusively that you cannot grow vegetables commercially in Louisiana.”

Ronnie M. Moore, a veteran of the civil rights movement and the editor of Father McKnight’s autobiography, Whistling in the Wind,” saw the latter as “a complex combination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.” His homilies, according to Mr. Moore, were scholarly and sometimes political. But they were also—for a man who, in Mr. Moore’s view, did not aspire to either sainthood or the episcopacy—“prophetic.”

“I think there was a time when a person like McKnight might become a bishop,” said Nate Tinner-Williams, creator of the Black Catholic Messenger website and a graduate student at Xavier University in New Orleans, in a recent phone conversation. “Especially in the context of the earlier Black bishops who were more on his wavelength, i.e., as activists who spoke out on social issues.”

“Truly and Authentically Black, Truly and Authentically Catholic”

This points to another dimension of Father McKnight’s life: his role in the Black Catholicism movement of the 1960s and thereafter, which included his becoming executive director of the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus in 1968. Their formational statement was uncompromising and included the sentence, “The Catholic Church in the U.S. is primarily a White, racist institution.”

Father McKnight shared the hopes of other Black Catholic clergy of his day that an African-American rite might be promulgated as part of the Second Vatican Council’s urging toward greater inculturation. “This whole subject, along with McKnight himself, has pretty much been forgotten,” Mr. Tinner-Williams said. “But we can hope that it will be rediscovered, along with the other things he spoke about.”

Father McKnight shared the hopes of other Black Catholic clergy of his day that an African-American rite might be promulgated.

In the 1970s, a fractious dispute over Ford Foundation funding split apart the leadership of the Southern Cooperative Development Foundation and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Father McKnight withdrew from co-op activity for five years but was heartened to see four federal agencies of the Carter administration in 1980 put together a combined $60 million to develop three large cooperatives of family farms. (The Reagan administration later cancelled most of the work.)

By 1982, McKnight returned to full-time pastoral ministry at Holy Ghost Church in Opelousas. With 10,000 parishioners, it was one of the largest Black parishes in the United States. His goal was to develop a faith community that was “truly and authentically Black, truly and authentically Catholic.” This project turned out to include an all-Black Last Supper mural, a Black Jesus hanging in the church and the liberation flag, with its colors of red, black and green, in the entrance procession. The changes led some Black parishioners to leave Holy Ghost for other, mostly white, parishes. Others loved the changes.

In these years, Father McKnight began to put into effect the fruits of his readings on the texts of Afrocentricity and drew on the principles of the Ahidiana school in New Orleans. He promoted the use of the Pan-Africanist movement called Nguzo Saba. The movement’s principles are reminiscent of Catholic social thought in their goal of reclaiming a value system based on the seven African principles of moja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith).

His goal was to develop a faith community that was “truly and authentically Black, truly and authentically Catholic.”

Mr. Tinner-Williams notes, “Afrocentricity is a funny word. Many people’s opinions about it are 50 years old by now. But it was the natural outworking of the African-American experience in this country. I think he and others of his era who spoke about it were onto something.”

McKnight’s experience in the Cajun country did not leave him unmoved. He helped organize the first Zydeco festival in Louisiana, while the S.C.D.F. and S.D.F. expanded to fund not only printing companies and hotels but also radio stations like Cajun-funk outpostWWOZ in New Orleans.

Another advocate for recovering Father McKnight’s spirit and work is the author Nathan Schneider, who sees a connection between the priest’s focus on cooperativism and the approach to economics found in Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si’.” “They both agree that economy is culture,” said Schneider in a recent email. “We place value on what we teach each other to value. When Francis condemns the ‘throwaway culture,’ that’s an economic statement.”

Mr. Schneider, author of Everything for Everyone,” points out that McKnight’s interest in an economic model that would work for the African diaspora in this country was something more than a search for business models. It was a way of honoring African ways of valuing. In this sense, it is very much like Pope Francis’ persistent concern for “the peripheries,” the idea that the church and the world both have a calling to center those cultures and experiences that too often have been too pushed to the edges.

In the late 1990s, Father McKnight moved to Haiti, where he helped launch Fondwa University in 2004, teaching courses on co-ops and serving as university chaplain before retiring in 2005. He died in Pennsylvania in 2016 and was buried in Louisiana.

“He shaped our lives,” one of his long-time friends, Kerstan Major, told the Opelousas Daily World newspaper. “The message he had was way before his time. This guy was the truth.”

Correction, March 8, 10:42 a.m.: This article previously stated that Holy Ghost Church was in Lafayette, La. It is located in Opelousas, La. 

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