The Radical Southern Farmer White Christians Should Know About | Sojourners

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A headshot of Clarence Jordan surrounded by a multitude of other headshots of men and women of differing ethniticies.

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The Radical Southern Farmer White Christians Should Know About

Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia community fought Jim Crow with a “cow library” and a radical faith. There's still work to do today.
By Mitchell Atencio

CLARENCE L. JORDAN died on Oct. 29, 1969, at 57 years old.

The radical Southerner who dedicated his life to farming, sharing the gospel, and imploring his neighbors to actually follow Jesus is not widely remembered. Jordan died as simply as he lived — buried in a wooden box used to ship coffins, in an unmarked grave, and wearing his overalls.

In early 2020, a little more than 50 years after Jordan (pronounced “Jurden”) died, I came across his work and was enamored. I began reading anything from or about him I could find. Jordan’s Georgia roots and love for the South mirrored my own. His charm and cutting humor were irresistible. Most appealing was Jordan’s stubborn commitment to radically following Christ, which led him to reject and rebuke the practices of racism, capitalism, and militarism in the U.S.

On the podcast Pass the Mic, writer Danté Stewart put a name to what I found in Jordan. “The reason why white [siblings] are struggling in this moment is because most of their models have been violent white supremacists,” Stewart said. “White [siblings], they don’t have models of liberation and love, so therefore they’re struggling in this moment.”

Clarence Jordan was a “model of love and liberation” that we can learn from now. The dehumanizing forces of racial capitalism and militarism are no weaker in the U.S. today than in his lifetime, and many white Christians are avid proponents of both. Jordan’s resistance and radical theology did not die with him; instead, they can evolve and grow with the times. We should engage Jordan without idolizing him and advance his core commitments with a critical eye, honestly appropriating them for our modern struggles.

A ‘demonstration plot' for the kingdom

IN 1942, CLARENCE and his wife, Florence Jordan — with Martin and Mabel England — co-founded Koinonia Farm. The couples set out to form an “agricultural missionary enterprise” in Americus, Ga., naming Koinonia after the Greek word for fellowship and joint participation. The farm would be “cooperative and communal ... interracial, controlled by investment of time (life), rather than capital; based on the principle of distribution according to need; [and] motivated by Christian love as the most powerful instrument known to [people] for solving [their] problems,” according to a letter sent by Clarence.

Koinonia bucked norms from the moment they established themselves on the 440-acre “demonstration plot for the kingdom.” Farm members were preaching and practicing pacifism (a year after the United States joined WWII), racial equality (in the segregated South), and joint ownership of all possessions (as the second Red Scare was ramping up). Believing that Christians had an obligation to work with and for the poor, Koinonia disregarded racist “Southern tradition” in several ways. They paid Black and white laborers equally and ate together. The farm had a “cow library,” loaning a milking cow to any of their neighbors unable to afford milk.

The people of Koinonia were practicing solidarity, not charity. The sharing of resources and knowledge was often reciprocal — neighbors would teach the intricacies of farming Georgia clay, and the Jordans would share what Clarence learned studying agriculture at the University of Georgia.

In 1956, two years after the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional, a quarter of the residents at Koinonia were Black. After the court’s decision, Jordan aided two Black students in their application to a segregated college in Atlanta, catching the attention of his neighbors. A White Citizens’ Council in Sumter County was started “with the express purpose of getting Koinonia out,” according to Florence. Anonymous threats, economic and political opposition, and outright violence soon came to the farm.

A 1957 article in the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian recounted the aggression Koinonia faced: Banks, gas stations, feed stores, and most businesses in Americus boycotted the farm (one feed store defied the boycott — it was dynamited shortly after); State Farm and other companies canceled all of Koinonia’s insurance policies; at night, people fired pistols and rifles at Koinonia; twice Koinonia had its roadside farm stand dynamited, and other property was destroyed. That year, a Sumter County grand jury issued a report accusing Koinonia of being a communist front and faking the violence. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI began investigating Koinonia for their alleged communist ties. While Jordan rejected the USSR’s communism mainly for its atheistic components, he would later quip that any Christians who weren’t accused of being communist weren’t worth their salt.

Koinonia was such a thorn in Georgia’s side that William T. Bodenhamer, a state representative and Baptist minister, pledged in his 1958 gubernatorial campaign that if elected, he would close Koinonia. One afternoon, a parade of Ku Klux Klan members came to intimidate the people of Koinonia into selling the farm.

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Mitchell Atencio is associate news editor, sojo.net. Follow him on Twitter @mitchellatencio.