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

In an essay published in 1966 for The Nation, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about the United States’ unwillingness to pursue one of the most vital components of the civil rights movement: economic justice for Black people. Voting rights had been obtained at this point – a process that was not smooth but had at least been moved into law – yet little action had occurred to make substantive change to racist workplaces and an economy that continues to benefit wealthy white people at the detriment of everyone else, especially low-income people of color. 

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

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

Bynum is the founding CEO of HOPE Credit Union, a financial institution with branches in wealth-starved areas of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. I was able to chat with him about the opportunity gaps faced by rural areas in the Alabama Black Belt and Mississippi Delta, how essential networks are in obtaining financial stability, and the individual moments that propel today’s civil rights movement. 

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

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 that you’ve done with HOPE combating barriers to wealth for people, especially in the Mississippi Delta and Alabama Black Belt. Can you introduce yourself and the work that you do?

William Bynum: I’ve been working with HOPE since 1994 when I moved from North Carolina, where I’d been doing similar work after graduating from college. I’ve been fortunate to work in occupations that allow me to close gaps in underserved communities, particularly in financially underserved communities. Even though HOPE is a credit union and an enterprise corporation as a loan fund, I think financing has tools to help address a bigger need of closing opportunity gaps in places that have not had equitable access to opportunity.

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

DY: Can you speak more about what those opportunity gaps look like and the importance of narrowing those gaps to set people up for success?

WB: Many rural places across the country and especially in the Deep South where HOPE is located are opportunity-starved. They have not had the level of investment to support things that families and communities need to prosper. Financial resources are critical to bringing those opportunities to bear. If you’re going to start a business, if you’re going to have quality housing, if you’re going to have healthcare, education, grocery stores that sell fresh produce – at some point, you will need access to capital. So that’s been our lever in closing these gaps, but the gaps are broad and comprehensive.

DY: What are the tools that HOPE gives to folks to bridge those gaps?

WB: Very few have everything they need to run a successful business. But the people who are more fortunate have family that has run a business or people in their churches or country clubs or their neighbors who are attorneys or accountants who can open doors for sales opportunities, for contracts, and all that networking helps entrepreneurs take advantage of resources to help them grow their ventures.

When you’re in a wealth-starved and opportunity-starved place, those resources are harder to come by. And so HOPE has worked to try to close those gaps with our financing 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 financing that is affordable and work with people to qualify for homeownership. Homes are still the primary asset that most Americans own. It closes the wealth gap, probably more than anything else. 

And then there’s the retail banking services. Almost half of our members didn’t have a bank account before they joined 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 get those individuals into the banking system so that they can have that rung to grab and climb the ladder.

DY: It sounds like the role of community is particularly important in creating that financial stability. How has HOPE played part of that community building 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 in a community, they’re often the largest buildings. They’re lifeblood to these small towns and rural areas, but after the financial crisis, we saw thousands of banks close and 90% of those were in low-income areas. HOPE went in and converted several bank branches into credit union offices. And we are often the only financial institution in those towns. We work very hard to tailor our products and services to the needs of the community. 

People know what’s missing. They know what their families and neighbors need to thrive. We have been fortunate to have relationships with policymakers, with foundations, with government officials, with larger businesses – we connect the dots where we don’t have tools to help address the issues. We introduce the community to those who do have the ability to help.

DY: Lastly, 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 the civil rights movement of today.” Can you talk more about those moments of autonomy and economic justice in an individual’s life that advance the larger social justice movement for historically and currently disenfranchised communities?

WB: I think we’ve all seen how fragile our democracy is over the past few years. It feels like we’ve gone back in time to the sixties. When Dr. King was in Memphis during the sixties, he was advocating for people to put their resources into financial institutions that support their communities. He really advocated to broaden the civil rights movement beyond just voting rights, which had made significant progress during that time. Dr. King was moving from voting rights to economic rights, and he wanted to make sure that people had the ability to support their families and to contribute to the local economy. 

Every account that [HOPE] opens for someone who was subjected to a payday lender builds on that legacy. In Itta Bena, Mississippi, we opened our branch right in the heart of the Delta, which again was 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 ever in an insured depository. She opened her first bank account at HOPE credit union, and that was because before then 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 be able to take advantage of something that so many others take for granted. 

Moments like that contribute to what I see as an extension of the civil rights movement, as more people recognize that in a country that is increasingly diverse, we can’t leave the majority of the population on the outside of the economy. It undermines the stability of the entire economy and it is counter to our collective interest.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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