When members of the local organizing committee of the Justice Or Else! Millions More March formed last year, they began promoting the importance of supporting black businesses in the Columbus community.
After returning from the march, held in the nation’s capital, the group started organizing monthly “Black Dollar Days” at black-owned establishments such as Larry’s Beauty Supply, the only black-owned hair product store in Columbus, and Skipper’s Seafood, a black-owned eatery.
Next, the local organizing committee put the spotlight on the Columbus branch of Citizens Trust Bank at the Midtown Shopping Plaza on Macon Road, encouraging black residents to open accounts with the only black-owned bank in the city. Last month, they held a “Black Dollars Day” there, resulting in about 50 new accounts, said Micheal Muhammad, a member of the local organizing committee who helped coordinate the event.
The effort is part of a national campaign that developed in the wake of controversial police shootings of black men throughout the country. Even before the local organizing committee held the Black Dollars Day at Citizens Trust, the bank had already seen a spike in deposits from local residents, said Diedra St. Julien, marketing manager for the bank headquartered in Atlanta.
Among those spearheading the economic campaign is Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, who called for black citizens to pull their money out of white-owned financial institutions this summer.
“We don’t have to burn our city down,” Killer Mike said during an interview on Atlanta’s Hot 107.9. “You can go to your bank tomorrow. And you can say, ‘Until you as a corporation start to speak on our behalf, I want all my money. And I’m taking all my money to Citizens Trust.’”
In a phone interview with the Ledger-Enquirer on Monday, St. Julien said she couldn’t give any specific numbers for Columbus, but there was definitely an increase in deposits throughout the company.
“I don’t have it broken out by market or location, but I can tell you that since the end of June, we’ve seen an influx all over the enterprise,” she said from Atlanta. “Thousands of new accounts were opened and, gosh, hundreds of thousands of applications were received.”
When asked what the impetus was for the increase, St. Julien said it was a combination of bank strategies and the protests.
“Back in late June/July of this year, it kind of was the perfect storm, where some community leaders got together as a result of social injustice that had happened in some of our communities around the nation,” she said. “And there was a call to action, and I think the community at-large responded to that call to action to do banking with smaller, local, more community banks like us.”
St. Julien said Citizens Trust, now a publicly traded company, was founded 95 years ago based on three core principles: thrift and understanding money, home ownership and financial empowerment. The bank has branches in 10 locations — seven in the Atlanta area, one in Columbus, one in Birmingham and one in Eutaw, Ala. The company entered the Columbus market about 15 years ago with a downtown branch that later closed, she said.
The bank is a community financial institution with a diverse customer base, she said. But it’s black-owned and primarily located in black communities.
Ronzell Buckner, owner of Skipper’s Seafood, is chair of the bank’s local advisory committee. He said the local Citizens Trust has been doing well, but could always use more support.
“Columbus is large enough now to have an African-American bank here in this city,” he said, “not just for African Americans but also for anyone that wants to see economics increase within the city of Columbus and also economics increase within the African-American community.”
Buckner said he and other board members have been constantly asking people to support the bank because they want to see it do well in Columbus.
“We’re not asking people to support the bank because of the shootings, because of any type of protesting, or anything like that,” he said. “We’re asking people to support the bank to basically help build the economics in the black community and give the young people in the community an opportunity to have a chance to bank with their own; also to see that they can own a bank and they can also be proud of the fact that African Americans own a bank.”
J. Aleem Hud is another member of the local bank advisory board. He also is a member of the Justice or Else! Millions More March local organizing committee. Hud said he would like to see more black churches and businesses open accounts with the bank. He also would like Citizens Trust to invest more in the Columbus community.
“My reason for pushing it is because in order to increase more resources for black businesses to be opened up and for more investment and black ownership to stabilize our neighborhoods, ultimately black banks are the ones that we need to go to,” he said. “But their thing has been, ‘Well, we can’t really do it because we don’t have enough depositors to have the money to do it.’”
Now that more local residents are depositing money at Citizens Trust, Hud said he hopes the community will hold the bank accountable.
“You cannot put money in the bank and not also organize a lobbying group to make sure that the black bank stays true to reinvesting more funds in the black community, in black businesses and also in helping with more financial reinvestment into the community here in Columbus,” he said.
Dr. Thomas Malone, a former member of the Citizens Trust advisory board member, said many people in the black community are focusing on economic empowerment because of recent national events.
“We’ve got over a trillion dollars that goes through our fingers every year,” he said of black consumers nationwide. “That’s a tremendous buying power and it just doesn’t seem to stay in our community very long.
“... Asians have the longest,” he continued. “It recycles in their community in about 30 days. Even in the white community, it stays in there maybe a week. But in our community it’s four to six hours.”
Malone said he supports black-owned businesses like Sparkle Laundry & Dry Cleaners in Phenix city because he wants to see more dollars recycle in the black community.
“If we did more recycling within our community, we would create more jobs in community,” he said. “Because that means his workforce could be enlarged. And if his workforce can be enlarged that means that somebody else can get a better paying job and then their children can be in a better educational system.”
Muhammad said the local organizing committee will try to keep the momentum going. The group has been having unity Saturdays once a month, doing peace walks in different communities. On Sept. 24, they’re going to march to Citizens Bank, hoping to get at least 1,000 businesses and individuals to open youth savings accounts.
Muhammad said the Black Lives Matter Movement has created an atmosphere for change, and he hopes it leads to economic empowerment.
“Unfortunately, it takes something like that to bring people together,” he said. “I think it goes back to Dr. King, who was headed in that direction when he was killed, that we need to support our own businesses. We need to make our own community a decent place to live. We need to begin educating our children.”