As the CEO of $1.2 million Issaquena County FCU, Clarence Hall Jr. knows that being small doesn't define how big of a difference a credit union — or even just one person — can make.

A long-time credit union executive and civil rights activist in the state of Mississippi, Hall has been recognized by the National Credit Union Foundation for a lifetime of service with the 2015 Herb Wegner Memorial Award.

The Foundation said the award recognizes Hall's "selfless work on behalf of the struggling population of Issaquena County and his lifelong embodiment of credit union values."

"Clarence Hall is not a household name in the credit union movement, but his work has been absolutely inspiring in building a better life in a downtrodden part of our nation," said John Gregoire, chair of NCUF Wegner Awards Selection Committee and president of The ProCon Group, in a statement. "Clarence is an unsung hero who has led efforts around financial literacy, civil rights and much more to make a positive impact on those in his community."

The Foundation explained that Hall's entire life reflected his belief in and support of credit unions' "people helping people" philosophy.

Issaquena County, with a population of only about 1,400 people, is one of the poorest counties in the United States. According to the U.S. Census, the County is almost two-thirds African-American and its economy is heavily dominated by agriculture.

According to Charles Elliott, President and CEO of Mississippi Credit Union Association, 45% of the population live below the poverty line. Issaquena County has no schools — students are bussed to schools in neighboring counties. The population has dropped by 40% in 2000, with a large chunk of current residents prison inmates.

Promoting the American Dream

"Through the years, [Hall] made possible countless loans for low-income members to acquire homes, automobiles and immediate personal needs," said the Foundation. "With every loan or transaction at the credit union came the opportunity for Hall to share his belief in thrift and educate members about sound financial skills."

In 1969, at the age of 45, Hall chartered the Issaquena County FCU, after he sued the State of Mississippi for denying African Americans the right to obtain such charters and set up non-profit organizations. He has since served as the credit union's only chairman, as well as CEO, and celebrated his 90th birthday in August 2014.

In more than 40 years of service, the Issaquena credit union has never had a single dime missing, and has charged off less than $4,000, the Foundation added.

"In a [county] recognized as one of Mississippi's poorest, Clarence has been very instrumental in helping citizens acquire loans that they had been denied through other traditional financial institutions," said Spencer Nash, President & CEO of the Delta Foundation, a Greenville, Miss.-based non-profit community development organization "This afforded residents an opportunity to become home and automobile owners, and increased their current financial statuses."

Indeed, Issaquena FCU is the only financial institution in the county, Elliott noted. "A bank came there eight years ago, but you can't make a loan at that branch," he said. "There are no pawn shops, finance companies or payday lenders."

The Foundation further noted that Hall, in his work with the Issaquena credit union and the civil rights movement, has "embraced the responsibilities of his involvement and championed the power of democratic control.

"Clarence takes advantage of every opportunity, when it comes to the advancement of the hard working and struggling people of this county," said Linda W. Short, the mayor of Mayersville, Miss. "He is very dedicated to the concept of every person having an equal opportunity to achieve their goals, and reaching their full potential in life."

Amazingly, Elliott told Credit Union Journal, Hall did not take any salary for 38 of his many years as the credit union's CEO. "No one gave so much for so long without compensation," Elliott said.

Hall had been grooming his son, Clarence III, to take over leadership of the credit union, but the younger Clarence passed away in October 2009.

"He still goes to the credit union each day," Elliott said. "He has approved 100% of the credit union's loans."

In 2012, Hall was recognized by the Mississippi CU Association with a place in the Mississippi Credit Union Hall of Fame, the state's highest credit union honor. "Clarence has not only suffered, he fought hard for what we would all consider to be basic rights and equality for all Americans," said Elliott. "He utilized the credit union to provide low-income residents of Issaquena County with financial opportunities they would never have otherwise known. In a variety of ways, he has dedicated his life to providing people an opportunity to improve their own well-being."

According to Elliott, Hall was born in Issaquena County in 1924 and worked in the fields most of his youth. In 1941 he volunteered for the U.S. Army, and spent three of his five years of service in the European Theatre of Operation during World War II. After completing his military service, Hall attended Agricultural School for four years in Delta City, Miss.

According to the Mississippi Civil Rights Project, Hall was the first black citizen to register to vote in Issaquena County in 1957.

In 1964, he was one of the founding members of the Issaquena County Freedom Democratic Party, a political action organization that helped to organize black voters.

In February 1965, Hall and others appeared before the United States Commission on Civil Rights to testify about blacks in Mississippi being denied the right to register to vote and abolish the literacy test.

Hall also became a key leader in the fight to allow African Americans to be elected to public office. He worked as project manager for the Delta Ministry, part of the National Council of the Church of Christ, and for the Mississippi Delta Council for Farm Workers — all while seizing constant leadership opportunities within his local community.

Fired for Advocacy Efforts

In an interview with Credit Union Journal, Elliott said that Hall was fired from his job when he went to Washington to seek a grant for the Child Development Group of Mississippi, the forerunner of the Headstart Program. Bobby Kennedy reportedly said to Hall during their meeting: "I have sympathy for the cause, Mr. Hall, but you understand and know, I have never suffered for anything a day in my life."

In 1969 Hall was one of the founding members of Delta Foundation Inc. and is a current board member.

Hall's daughter, Ruth Ann Hall-Evans, Assistant Principal at Mason Elementary School, stated that her father's efforts to establish a financial institution modeled on a people-helping-people approach in a poverty-stricken county "took a lot of courage, many sacrifices, dedication and hard work. My father's perseverance, beliefs, respect, responsibility, and caring heart, along with the will of God, enabled him to give his time and efforts (without a dime in payment of a salary to himself for almost four decades) to embark on a voluntary journey to build something extraordinary for his people, family, friends, and foes that would have a major impact on life as it is now known in Issaquena County."

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