THE SOUTHERN TENANT FARMERS UNION
Black agricultural workers also suffered severely during the Depression. When cotton prices plunged the Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933) required that some cotton land be plowed under the create scarcity. In eastern Kansas acute poverty resulted from the increasing mechanization of agriculture, and the effects of the new AAA program, which left many sharecroppers without work or homes. Under the AAA, the government compensated for the financial loss resulting from the plowing under of cotton by sending subsidies to planters. Benefits were to be shared by the landlord and tenant according to their interest in the crop. Since the landlord signed the contract, and the money was sent to him to distribute, however, few tenants ever received their shares.
It was against this background that the Southern Tenant Farmers Union was organized. During the summer of 1934, eleven whites and seven blacks met in a one-room schoolhouse on the Arkansas Delta. Assisted by Harry L. Mitchell (see Vol. VI, note 142), who became executive secretary, and Clay East, both active members of the Socialist Party, the black and white sharecroppers united into one union. An alliance was formed with Commonwealth College, a socialist school in the Ozark Mountains which was training labor leaders. After a year of organization, STFU claimed 10,000 members. As it grew in size and effectiveness, the repressive measures against it grew apace. The union could no longer hold public meetings in the field, and its officers were warned that they would be lynched if they remained in eastern Arkansas. Therefore, STFU headquarters were moved to Memphis for reasons of safety.
Despite the repression, STFU conducted a series of mass struggles over the next several years. Although STFU was interracial, by 1937, over 80 per cent of the membership was black. Many of the local leaders were ministers in black churches. E. B. McKinney, the union’s first vice-president, was a black minister. Considerable animosity existed between McKinney and STFU President J. R. Butler. McKinney became the spokesman for disgruntled blacks who believed that they should have a stronger voice in policy-making, while Butler demanded adherence to class-conscious principles. STFU was further weakened by a dispute with the CIO International with which it affiliated—the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA). Mitchell favored independence, while Butler favored a merger, and the dispute diverted the organization’s attention from its struggle with the planters.
The most dramatic event of the sharecropper movement occurred in January, 1939, when about 1,700 evicted sharecroppers and their families encamped themselves along Highway 61 in Missouri. For nearly a week black and white families huddled around open fires as travellers passed by to witness the fate of those who were poor and powerless. Reporters from major newspapers, newsreel camera teams, and federal government investigators momentarily brought the nation’s attention to rest on these unfortunate Americans. They may have received the nation’s sympathies, but the embarrassed governor of Missouri had the encampment declared a health hazard, and even before help could arrive, the campers were forced to evacuate the public highway to freeze and starve out the public’s sight.
STFU was able to bring the plight of the sharecropper to the nation’s consciousness as never before. Actually, STFU was more of a social movement to end the vicious quasi-serfdom which prevailed in southern agriculture. STFU succeeded in making some influential Americans conscious of the truth behind Karl Marx’s dictum: “Labor in the white skin cannot be free as long as labor in the black in branded.”