On Labor Day, Americans will celebrate U.S. workers who have built and shaped the nation and influenced the world.
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One of the most successful entrepreneurs of the 20th century in Mississippi was also one of Southern Baptists’ most influential laymen. The late Owen Cooper, who died Nov. 8, 1986, worked tirelessly in both arenas.
The year before Cooper’s death, the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board named him Layman of the Century. He was the second of only two laypeople ever elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, serving two terms, 1972-1974. Many who knew him say his commitment to Christ and Christ-like ministry inspired his vision for bold endeavors.
His passionate interests drove him into many arenas to leverage his farm-boy upbringing as well as a master’s-level education in economics and political science from the University of Mississippi in 1936 and a law degree from Mississippi College’s School of Law (then Jackson School of Law) in 1938. His business acumen and political knowledge, as well as his speaking and persuasion skills, would all come into play frequently over the years.
“Mr. Cooper had an amazing ability to envision and then inspire masses of fellow citizens to implement a simple, elegant solution to a huge need and problem,” writes Jo [sic] G. Prichard III, Cooper’s longtime executive assistant at Mississippi Chemical Corporation (now Mississippi Chemical Co.). Prichard, author of Making Things Grow: The Story of Mississippi Chemical Corporation (1998), provided his reflections to Baptist Press.
The seeds for Mississippi Chemical were planted 75 years ago in 1943 as World War II was winding down. Mississippi agricultural researchers were studying ammonia as a source of nitrogen to improve crop yields. Cooper was then executive director of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, which represented 250,000 farmers and rural families.
By March 1947, the research had proven ammonia’s effectiveness as a fertilizer. But as demand for the product exploded, short supply made it expensive. That’s when Cooper laid out his vision to create Mississippi Chemical, his best-known business enterprise.
As Farm Bureau executive director – and a Christian concerned about the food supply in post-war America – Cooper challenged farmers across the South to buy stock in a new co-op enterprise that would build the world’s first farmer-owned ammonia-nitrogen fertilizer plant.
Farmers, Mississippi banks and a loan from the federal government provided $4.25 million for the plant, which was built in Yazoo City, Cooper’s hometown, 50 miles north of Jackson, now with a population of 11,000.
The first bags of fertilizer were produced March 16, 1951.
Over the next decade, the company built three similar plants in the United States and on the South American island of Trinidad.
In the 1960s – with support from other American fertilizer producers and the U.S. Agency for International Development – Cooper helped farmers in India build their own plants.
Cooper’s interests in India also included missions, where the Indian government limited permanent visas available to missionaries. Cooper suggested the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board) hire Indian nationals to help.
When he learned it was against board policy to hire nationals, Cooper created Universal Concern to hire Indian Baptist preachers to go into unreached areas to start churches. The effort was so successful the mission board revised its policy and merged Universal Concern into its ministries.
Another of Cooper’s interests in India was Serampore College, founded by British Baptist missionary William Carey in 1818, which will celebrate its 200th anniversary this fall. Cooper’s interest is linked to Hattiesburg, Miss.-based William Carey University (formerly William Carey College).
“Mr. Cooper was supportive of William Carey University because … we are named after Carey, the ‘father of the modern missionary movement,’” Tommy King, president of the Baptist-affiliated institution, said in email comments to Baptist Press.
Cooper’s wife Elizabeth, who died in 1999, served on Carey’s board. The university’s Owen and Elizabeth Cooper Institute of Missions is named in honor of the couple.
Carey is buried in a cemetery near Serampore, King said. “When Mr. Cooper was there years ago, he discovered that William Carey’s grave was in a deplorable condition and disrepair. And it was being flooded every time the river overflowed.”
King said Cooper came back to America and “raised money to renovate and repair the cemetery and build a levee to protect it from the river. So that’s the kind of thing he did. He just saw needs and took steps to meet those needs.”
Cooper also took steps to meet the pressing social needs he saw in his hometown of Yazoo City during the racially turbulent 1960s and ‘70s.
His daughter Nancy Gilbert, 78, of Madison, Miss., recounted that after a year of study in Europe as a Baylor University junior, “my view of the world greatly increased” beyond the racial inequality she had known as a child growing up in Yazoo City.
When she returned home from college in the early 1960s, Gilbert said, she and her parents had “a very rough” experience aligning their views on racial equality. Eventually, she said, “there was mutual stimulation … let’s put it that way. And Daddy … began to get involved in the social justice arena.”
His involvement included:
Promoting tolerance and cooperation between blacks and whites.
Helping organize the Mississippi Religious Liberty Council that spoke out against attacks on churches and synagogues.
Partnering with the NAACP to form an organization to run the largest Head Start program in the South.
Recruiting and hiring Louise Dean, Mississippi Chemical’s first black professional, to work on his personal staff.
Advocating the peaceful desegregation of the workplace, public facilities, colleges and public schools.
Cooper’s efforts in race relations were recognized by national media on Jan. 7, 1970, when public schools in Yazoo City were peacefully integrated. But involvement in civil rights came at a cost to Cooper, who wanted to run for Mississippi governor, Prichard writes.
“He would have been a formidable candidate and would have been a great governor,” Prichard writes, but Cooper sensed that his civil rights efforts “doomed any possibility of his running for governor in the Deep South of the 1960s and ‘70s.”
Still, Prichard notes, in his business and faith initiatives, “he always seemed to insist: ‘We can do this ourselves. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.’”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tim Tune is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas.)