Civil movement

Q&A: Economic Justice as Today’s “Extension of the Civil Rights Movement”

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, maker or doer. Do you like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and get more conversations like this delivered to your inbox every week.

In a 1966 essay published for The Nation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about America’s reluctance to pursue one of the most vital components of the civil rights movement: economic justice for black people. The right to vote had been won at this point – a process that was not smooth sailing but had at least been enacted into law – but little action had been taken to bring about substantial change in racist workplaces and to an economy that continues to benefit wealthy white people at the expense of everyone else, especially low-income people of color.

“Our nation is now so rich, so productive, that the pursuit of persistent poverty is incendiary because the poor cannot rationalize their deprivation,” Dr. King wrote. “Only the neglect to plan intelligently and adequately and the unwillingness to embrace economic justice allows it to persist.”

The struggle to embrace economic justice is as urgent in 2022 as it was in 1966. Fortunately, there are modern leaders like William Bynum who are expanding financial opportunities for disenfranchised communities in the Deep South.

Bynum is the founding CEO of HOPE Credit Union, a financial institution with branches in impoverished areas of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. I was able to chat with him about the opportunity gaps facing rural areas of Alabama’s Black Belt and the Mississippi Delta, the importance of networks in achieving financial stability, and individual moments that propel today’s civil rights movement.

I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I do.

Claire Carlson, The Daily Yonder: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I want to talk about the work you’ve done with HOPE to address barriers to wealth for people, especially in the Mississippi Delta and the Alabama Black Belt. Can you introduce yourself and the work you do?

William Bynum: I have worked with HOPE since 1994 when I moved from North Carolina, where I had done similar work after graduating from college. I have been fortunate to work in professions that allow me to fill gaps in underserved communities, especially in financially underserved communities. Even though HOPE is a credit union and a venture company as a lending fund, I think the funding has tools to help address a greater need to fill opportunity gaps in places that have not had equitable access to opportunities.

William (Bill) Bynum is the founding CEO of HOPE Credit Union. (Image from HOPE Credit Union.)

DY: Can you expand on what these opportunity gaps look like and how important closing these gaps is to setting people up for success?

WB: Many rural areas across the country and especially in the Deep South where HOPE is located lack opportunities. They haven’t had the level of investment needed to support the things that families and communities need to thrive. Financial resources are essential to realize these opportunities. If you’re going to start a business, if you’re going to have good housing, if you’re going to have health care, education, grocery stores that sell fresh produce – at some point you’re going to need access to capital. So that was our leverage to fill those gaps, but the gaps are vast and comprehensive.

DY: What tools does HOPE give people to fill these gaps?

WB: Very few have everything they need to run a successful business. But people who are luckier have family who have run businesses or people in their churches or country clubs or neighbors who are lawyers or accountants who can open doors for sales opportunities, for contracts , and this whole network helps entrepreneurs take advantage of resources to help them grow their businesses.

When you are in a place that lacks wealth and opportunity, these resources are harder to come by. And so HOPE has been working to try to fill those gaps with our funding and also by connecting entrepreneurs with resources that can fill those gaps that don’t exist as much in other communities and among other populations. We provide affordable financing and work with people to qualify for home ownership. Homes are still the biggest asset most Americans own. It closes the wealth gap, probably more than anything else.

And then there’s retail banking. Nearly half of our members did not have a bank account before joining the credit union. They have relied on high-cost check cashers and payday lenders who take advantage of those who can least afford to pay. And so we bring these individuals into the banking system so that they can have that ladder to enter and move up the ladder.

DY: It seems that the role of the community is particularly important in creating this financial stability. How has HOPE played a role in this community development in rural areas and in places where historically there were more payday lenders and high-cost check cashers?

WB: In many small towns, banks are the anchor of a community, often the tallest buildings. They are the lifeblood of these small towns and rural areas, but after the financial crisis we saw thousands of banks close and 90% of them were in low income areas. HOPE stepped in and converted several bank branches into credit union offices. And we are often the only financial institution in these cities. We work very hard to adapt our products and services to the needs of the community.

People know what is missing. They know what their family and neighbors need to thrive. We’ve been fortunate to have relationships with policy makers, with foundations, with government officials, with large corporations – we connect the dots where we don’t have tools to help solve problems . We introduce the community to those who have the ability to help.

DY: Finally, I want to talk about something you mentioned in the introduction to HOPE’s 2020 Annual Impact Report. You wrote that every action HOPE takes to advance economic justice is a “moment in today’s civil rights movement.” Can you talk more about those moments of empowerment and economic justice in an individual’s life that advance the broader movement of social justice for historically and currently disenfranchised communities?

WB: I think we have all seen the fragility of our democracy over the past few years. It feels like stepping back in time to the sixties. When Dr. King was in Memphis in the 1960s, he advocated for people to put their resources into financial institutions that support their communities. He really advocated expanding the civil rights movement beyond just the right to vote, which had made significant progress during this time. Dr. King was moving from voting rights to economic rights and he wanted to ensure that people had the ability to support their families and contribute to the local economy.

Every account that [HOPE] opens for someone who has been submitted to a payday lender builds on that legacy. In Itta Bena, Mississippi, we opened our branch in the heart of the Delta, which was again a bank branch that we had converted from a closed bank. One of the first members was a 100-year-old woman who, on her birthday, made her first deposit at an insured depository. She opened her first bank account at HOPE Credit Union, and that’s because before that, she had never felt welcomed and respected enough. She didn’t think it was something for her. No one should have to wait a century to enjoy something so many others take for granted.

Moments like this contribute to what I see as an extension of the civil rights movement, as more and more people recognize that in an increasingly diverse country, we cannot leave the majority of the population in outside the economy. It undermines the stability of the entire economy and goes against our collective interest.

This interview first appeared in Path seekers, a weekly e-newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Every Monday, Path Finders offers a Q&A with a rural thinker, maker or doer. Join the mailing list today to have these insightful conversations delivered straight to your inbox.