This two-part edition of The Next System Podcast features Clark Arrington, a pioneer in the cooperative movement, an innovative legal practitioner, and a leader in the movement for Black economic empowerment. He now works as general counsel for The Working World, which provides creative, nonextractive financing and support for cooperatives. He is also well known in cooperative circles as the person who was instrumental in helping Equal Exchange grow from a small niche coffee roaster to a $70 million business. Arrington has an important and fascinating story to tell about his role in the struggle to build an economic infrastructure that not only empowers workers generally but confronts this country’s history of racism and its economic impact.
In depth with Clark Arrington, a pioneer for cooperatives and black economic power (Part 1)
John Duda: I think one of the things that I am really excited to get into is just the way that you have found your way into the cooperative movement, where you came from, how that’s all worked. You were born in Philadelphia. Tell me a little bit about growing up in Philly; what happened?
Clark Arrington: Well, I grew up mostly a single parent, my mother, who, God bless her, very competent responsible mother, woman. I had a great little childhood. My mother went to Talladega College, and I really should start there with my inception. That is because Talladega College would not have been there had there not been the revolt of the Amistad, which they turned it into a movie. They raised money to repatriate the Africans back to Africa, I think to Gambia. The surplus money was used to set up Talladega College. That’s where my mother and father met. I often speculate had there not been that uprising, had there not been that Amistad revolt, there would not have been a Talladega College, and in all likelihood, my mother and my father would not have met.
I was sent to a boarding school, a Black pre-college prep school, I guess you would call it. Palmer Memorial Institute, very prestigious school in its day. It was the school of preferred middle class, upper-class Black folk, diplomats, African diplomats, entertainers’ children. That’s where they went.
Long story short, I realized that going to a Black bourgie prep school also exposed me to certain things. We had an African Day every year. I was exposed to Africa at a very young age, at least while I was in high school. I started there in ninth grade. I also learned about Marcus Garvey in high school. It totally blew me away, but at that age, you’re learning about a lot of different things. You know nothing about anything. It doesn’t surprise you when you learn something. It wasn’t until later, I was at Penn State. From Palmer, I went to Penn State.
Through my undergraduate, didn’t hear anything about Marcus Garvey. This monumental Black guy. At that point, we were debating. This would have been early, late ’60s. I started in ‘65 and graduated in ‘69.
We were debating during that period. I was part of, I guess, the Black power, Black liberation movement, and part of that debate was whether or not you secured political power in order to get economic power or you secured economic power in order to get political power. I opted on the side, to me, it made more sense that you get economic power and then you had a choice as to whether or not to get political power. But when you began to analyze “Black capitalism”—and this is the Nixon era and there were all kinds of efforts to increase Black participation in the economy—you realize that this is the same system that evolved from slavery. It was like, no. I don’t want to emulate that system.
I looked at Garvey, and saw how he had accumulated a mass amount of capital from lots of people, small contributions, and created a serious enterprise, the Black Star Line, other businesses, and did it in somewhat of a cooperative manner. That impressed me. That led my thinking to, how a large number of people can pool small amounts of money to have large amounts of money in order to start businesses? From literally college on, that was always in the back of my mind while I partied and went to football games and chased and just had an outstanding social life, but I was always very concerned about capital accumulation and not replicating capitalism
John Duda: Penn State, what’s the climate there?
Clark Arrington: The climate was very interesting, because I’m coming from an all-Black, small institution to a big, White institution in the middle of nowhere.
I had a great time at Penn State. It was a big environment. I pledged a Black fraternity, but I also was very involved in all of the political activities at Penn State. I ended up heading this thing called the Jazz Club, which we would basically, we were the concert providers for State College, for Penn State. So we did concerts like, we did James Brown. We did Smokey and the Miracles. We did Duke Ellington. We would do big concerts in the beginning of the year, and then we’d do free concerts for jazz. The jazz concerts were actually free, because there was only a small number of people that really actually liked jazz.
I had access to a lot of money. I lent money to a group of political activists. I also funded the appearance of Dick Gregory. I guess it was during ‘68, one of the presidential elections, and Dick Gregory came. Again, Jazz Club sponsored it. Some of the more, I guess, conservative big-time fraternity boys were like, “Jazz Club, I’m a member of the Jazz Club and I don’t support these activities.” I had a good friend who was an editor at the school newspaper, Margie Cohen. She would write really nice articles and supportive editorials about what I was doing and why it was not an abuse of Jazz Club resources. While at Penn State, I helped start what was called the Frederick Douglass Association, which was the Black Student Association, which still exists today, and I got to have a relationship with the president of the University, Eric Walker. I’ll never forget that. At one point, I tore off the flag, lowered the flag in front of the administration building in honor of Malcolm X, I think it was an anniversary of his death or he may have actually been killed that day. There was a picture of me on the front page of all of the papers in Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Harrisburg. At that time, the president was before the legislature. It was a funding period, so he’s presenting his budget. Of course, there’s, “You’ve got to fire this kid, throw this kid out. Look what’s going on at this place!” He knew me. He was a good guy. He basically told them, “They didn’t destroy any property. All the property was replaced.”
Gosh, you can just imagine my parents and my relatives. They see my picture on the front page of newspapers. They hear about me wanting to be expelled from school. It was a dramatic period in my life, but the president of the University, Eric Walker, stood up and held. He had my back.
John Duda: All right. You’re at Penn State. You’re throwing great parties.
Clark Arrington: You wouldn’t believe.
John Duda: You’re bringing amazing concerts to the middle of nowhere.
Clark Arrington: Amazing concerts.
John Duda: In rural Pennsylvania, blowing people’s minds, making all sorts of trouble, winding up on the front page of the newspaper. What causes you to then go into law, go into cooperative development?
Clark Arrington: This is the Vietnam War era. Nobody wanted to go. The exemptions were changed. At one point, as long as you were in college, you were exempt. Then it was, you had to have a certain grade point average, and you were exempt. Then it was, when I graduated, there were certain professions that were exempt, one of which was teaching. I was accepted into grad school at UCLA for African Studies. I think it was African Studies. I don’t think it was African American studies. I was really on my way to UCLA, hoping I could figure out how to avoid the draft. I stopped by to meet some friends. They said, “You should teach.” Sure enough, that was what I ended up doing, teaching in Chicago, and I was exempt from the draft.