From the Archives: The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union
As in the rest of the Deep South, the economy of the Arkansas Delta in the early 20th century was marked by sharecropping, a system in which a farmer rents land from the owner in exchange for a cut of the crop. Sharecropping in the U.S. became widespread across the South after the Civil War and emancipation, and sharecroppers were usually formerly enslaved people or poor white farmers. Others in the region were tenant farmers who rented the land they worked but owned their crops in full. Both systems were highly exploitative and marked by tremendous power imbalances that left sharecroppers and tenant farmers trapped in perpetual debt. They also inspired numerous union organizing attempts.
In September 1919, a group of Black sharecroppers in Phillips County, Arkansas organized a chapter of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America, a union founded after World War I by Black tenant farmer Robert Lee Hill. White sheriff's deputies arrived to a meeting of the union outside a church in Hoop Spur, near the city of Elaine, and gun violence broke out. Local white planters and landowners reacted with extreme violence. Mobs of armed white men from across the Mississippi River poured into Phillips County, launching a days-long killing spree of Black people. Historians estimate hundreds of Black people were killed. The incident is known as the Elaine Massacre.
Fifteen years after it took place, the massacre was heavy on the minds of a group of Black and white sharecroppers and tenant farmers as they gathered about 100 miles north of Elaine in the small city of Tyronza, Arkansas, and organized the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union — one of the few unions of the time open to Black and white people. It aimed to help farmers work out fairer arrangements with landowners and to ensure sharecroppers and tenant farmers got a fair cut of Depression-era federal farm support payments that went to landowners. Though its leaders faced harassment and attacks, the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union had chapters across the South and spread into the Southeast. It later changed its name to the National Agricultural Workers Union and the Agricultural and Allied Workers' Union and remained active until 1970.
In 1974, Southern Exposure, the print forerunner to Facing South, published a nearly 230-page issue of oral histories titled "No More Moanin': Voices of Southern Struggle." For it, Sue Thrasher and Leah Wise interviewed people who had been involved in the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. We're publishing those six oral histories — several of which refer to the Elaine Massacre — on the Facing South website for the first time this week to mark the massacre's 102nd anniversary on Sept. 30-Oct. 1. We're also publishing a brief about Elaine from the same Southern Exposure issue, and we'll be covering this year's commemoration events and the planning underway for the community's future. You can find our previous coverage of the Elaine centennial commemoration here and last year's anniversary events here.
Editor's note: The oral histories as originally published include a racial slur spelled out in full. We are publishing it here as it occurred in the original.
By Sue Thrasher and Leah Wise
In the summer of 1934, eleven white men and seven black men met in a one-room schoolhouse on the Arkansas Delta and organized themselves into a "tenants' union." For the croppers, already living on subsistence wages from one "furnish" to the next, the decline in cotton prices brought on by the Depression had been disastrous. The New Deal's answer to the crisis, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration's (AAA) acreage reduction program, pushed sharecroppers off the land while it rewarded the planters with parity payments. Thousands of tenants and sharecroppers were evicted and forced to find work as day laborers or go on relief programs.
By the time the croppers met at the Sunnyside School, other forces were in play throughout Arkansas that were to reinforce and interact with the newly formed union. Coal miners were striking in the northwest section of the state and fighting with the United Mine Workers for control of their local union. In the Ozark Mountain town of Mena, Commonwealth College was training labor leaders. Nearby in the town of Ink, refugees from the Llano Cooperative Colony in Louisiana had established still another cooperative venture. In Paris, Claude and Joyce Williams were using the church to organize the unemployed, to hold classes in political education, and to aid the striking miners. The Socialist Party, organized earlier in the Tyronza area, had already held one state convention, boasted a sizable membership, and had brought Norman Thomas into the area to speak.
Uppermost in the minds of those planning the union was the memory of what had happened in Arkansas fifteen years earlier when black sharecroppers in Elaine had attempted to organize. Issac Shaw recalled that event, known as the Elaine Massacre, and gave a moving plea as to why the union had to be integrated: black people couldn't do it on their own without inviting racial slaughter.
It is probable that at least some of the organizers in the room that evening were aware of a similar attempt at sharecropper organizing in Alabama. The Alabama Sharecroppers Union (SCU) had been organized in 1931 by the Communist Party in response to requests from black croppers and day laborers who complained that the landlords had set day wages at 50 cents per day for men and 25 cents a day for women. The union organized around several demands including food advances through settlement time, the right for the sharecroppers to sell their own time, day wages paid in cash, and a nine month school term for black children. A skirmish outside a union meeting one night at Camp Hill ended in a gun battle and the subsequent repression quieted activity in the area and sent the nascent union underground. The following year the union emerged in Reeltown and ended in another gun battle, recorded in John Beecher's poem In Egypt Land.
Although it was not the first attempt by sharecroppers to rebel against the viciousness of the plantation caste system, the organization of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) was to have far-reaching effect in bringing the "plight of the sharecropper" to the nation's consciousness. Subjected to continuous harassment and intimidation by the landed gentry and their hired lawmen, the union nevertheless continued to grow in both membership and mass appeal. Throughout the '30's and into the early war years it spread to six southern states. Stubbornly maintaining its union structure despite rebuffs by both the CIO and AFL, it became a mass movement — a movement that people joined with the enthusiasm they normally saved for their religion, a movement that gave common people the means to organize and fight for the right to live decent and productive lives.
It is not our intention here to tell the full story of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, nor to analyze the conditions out of which it grew. What we present here are first person accounts by six people who were active participants in the union as organizers, national and local officers, and local members. George Stith was a young man when he joined the STFU and was quickly made secretary of his Cotton Plant local because he could write; Clay East was converted to socialism when he read Letters to Jud by Upton Sinclair because "it just made sense." He took in the first members of the union when it was organized at the Sunnyside School and remained active in the union for the next year; Mrs. Naomi Williams was a member of an STFU local in the Gould area; J. R. Butler taught school for a while near his home town of Pangburn, but was working for his brother at the sawmill when he attended the first state socialist convention in Arkansas. He was President of the union from 1935 to 1942, the union's most active and productive years. H. L. Mitchell is an acknowledged co-founder of the union, and served in an executive capacity up through the time the union was known as the National Farm Labor Union until its affiliation with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen. Carrie Dilworth served as secretary of the Gould local, helped the union raise money by speaking nationally, and coordinated the transport of labor to work in the canneries during the war years.
The stories that follow are excerpted from recorded interviews conducted by the Institute for Southern Studies.
STITH: I was born in Baxter, in Drew County, Arkansas, in 1916. I stayed there until I was five years old. Then we moved to Tiller, Arkansas, down the road about 15 or 20 miles, on the land of T.P. Perry. My father left the farm when I was somewhere around six or seven and went to work for the US government as a detective, for this squad that looked into vice. He worked on assignment, but he wouldn't tell us just what his job was. He joined up in St. Louis where the division headquarters was. He taken it up because he wanted to get away from the farm. At that time on the plantations in the South, you didn't have too much security. You wasn't independent. You did as the plantation owner or agent say do; you taken what they give you, and that's about it.
We travelled a lot until 1930. His health got bad and he resigned. I found later, after I was grown, that he resigned partly because he almost got killed several times, and my mother had just decided that she didn't want him in the service. That's the reason he got out. And he went to work in Illinois at a steel plant where they make steam heaters and radiators, but some of the chemicals they used there went against his health. So he had to leave that and that's why we came back to southeast Missouri to the farm.
First we went to Tiptonville, Tennessee, to pick cotton. That was in 1926, if I remember right. Then he decided he would go back to the farm, that it was best for him. So we came back to southeast Missouri and started sharecropping.
I think they looked at it as a step down, but then they looked at farming as a way of life and that's it. This was a way of making it. They felt that they had to make some kind of plan where the family could be kept together and that's what they did. His health didn't get too good. We moved to the farm and after about three years his health got so bad, he wasn't able to work. My mother's health wasn't good enough for her to work either. I had a brother next to me that they let my grandmother who always lived near us keep, and this only left two boys at home.
Now here's what happened to my education. The time he got disabled to work and she was disabled to work, we lived on a small plantation. The man had 14 head of mule. It was a pretty good size plantation for mule farming. Every sharecropper had a pair of mules, and that pair of mules had to work. You lived in his house. So when my father got down sick and couldn't work, then I had to quit school and take over. I barely finished what we called elementary and that's all the schooling I got, and the most anybody got in the family.
People asked me, "What you gonna do with the 14 acres of cotton?'' I said, "I'm gon' work it,'' and lord know, I don't know how I figured I was gonna work it. I just figured I had it to do. I was the only one to work and that was just it. So I dropped out of school and went out and got the crop ready, planted it. When it come time to chop, the owner of the plantation said, "What you gon' do about the cotton?" I said, "I'm gon' work it, I'm gon' try." He looked at me and he said, "You got more nerve than any boy I ever seen. I'll tell you what to do. You get a pair of mules in the lot. You plow your crop and after that I've got a hay crop, you can plow for me. I'll see that the cotton is chopped and what's left over I'll charge it to the crop." So that's the way we worked it. We worked on through hay season which at that time was all done by mules. When we finished with hay season I had enough money coming that I had worked over for him, more over than the cotton chopping was worth, to buy me a suit of clothes. It was the first long pants suit of clothes I ever had.
When I wasn't working the crop I worked out on farms, baling hay and cutting timber as a day laborer. I made more money by working than we did out of the crop. I don't remember how much it was we made from the crop; you never was told that. But I know the money from the crop wasn't too much, because we bought winter groceries. I know, I went with my parents when they went to trade. They bought a barrel of flour, a 50-pound sack of sugar, beans and rice. That was it.
In the last part of '34 after the crops were harvested, we came to Arkansas. The man we moved with sent a truck to move us from southeast Missouri to Augusta, Arkansas, and we paid that out of the next crop. So we didn't have much money.
In Arkansas, I worked on the plantation of A.L. Cole and Son. Their headquarters was at Wyattville, between Cotton Plant and Howell. Everybody always called it Cotton Plant because that was the closest town. The plantation I was on was about 12 square miles.
The population in the area was about 90% black, and all black on the plantation. Around Tyronza and Marked Tree where the union started, it must have been around 40 or 60% more Negroes than whites. The northeast part of Woodruff County was virtually all white. That's where we got a large part of our white membership from. This whole section north of McCrory, around South Bend, over as far as Martin, until you get up near Wynn, was mostly white. At one time Negroes wasn't allowed to go through these places north of McCrory unless they was a white person with them. But overall, the cotton growing area was about 75% black.
They really didn't want you to go to work off the plantation unless you got permission from them. They wanted to keep you busy, and you didn't get any money out of it. But they would say, "Now look, if you need a little grocery money come up and I'll give you a half book.'' When you borrowed money to make a crop, you didn't get cash money; you got a coupon book. A book looked pretty much like food stamps today. It wasn't good anywhere except at the company store.
The owner, Cole, he had a mint of his own called "brozeen." When he paid you off and credited your money, you got his money called brozeen. Now he wasn't the only one. There was a lot of plantations, large ones, like the Wilson plantation up near Blytheville and Ozone which had five plantations I think. Now each plantation had a different brozeen, but you could spend Wilson brozeen only at a Wilson store. The coupon books stayed for a long time, but the brozeen disappeared, and I'm not sure whether it was helpful or not. When brozeen disappeared there still wasn't any money; they went totally to the coupon book.
The plantation I lived on didn't have it, but a lot of the large plantations like Wilson and others had their own penal farm. They even held their own courts on certain plantations. Many times the agent on the place where I worked went to trial for me. I didn't go; he was my representative. It was the owner's own court. They had a judge, a legal justice of the peace on the plantation. The plantation was actually like a state. It had its own government, and the plantation owner actually appointed the justice of the peace. Now back in those days Negroes didn't vote too much, and the justice of the peace was elected by very few people. If the plantation owner went to all agents and all the white people who lived on the place and said, "Look, Mr. So and So is running for justice of the peace, vote for him,'' he got the votes. So he was a legal justice of the peace. Many plantations were broke up into units, often miles apart. So, no matter what unit he was on, the justice of the peace had jurisdiction over whatever his court area was.
EAST: Times were so bad that people over at one of those small towns over there stopped a bread truck. They stopped the bread truck and took the bread off the damn thing, a bunch of these damn working people out there. Couldn't get nothing to eat. And that happened over quite a bit of the country. Back in that country, they only ate rabbits in the wintertime, see, after frost had fallen and so forth. But they used to make a remark back then that Hoover was the guy that made rabbits good to eat the year 'round. But the thing was serious.
There was a world of credit done at that time; everything was done on credit. The small farmers back at that time all had to borrow money every year to make a profit. So, if they had a bad crop year, a lot of them, that's the way they lost their farms. The bad times back there was 1920 and you just can't imagine the number of people then that was big men the year before who had lost everything they had.
They had no control whatever over what their cotton sold for. They were paid what the cotton buyer wanted to pay them. The supply and demand deal didn't work out so much, in a way, it did, but if they had a big supply and the demand for cotton went down, then the price of cotton went down. I've seen cotton sell for 4 cents a pound.
Well naturally this country was made up of those small farms to begin with — people who had come in there and bought small farms for themselves. Ritter and Emrich furnished a world of people. They had the largest store there [Tyronza] by far and had the gin and everything. Well, when a man went broke and lost his farm, they got it. So first thing you know, there's a few people who was getting ahold of all the land. See, it got to where these farms, most of them, was belonging to big businessmen, the small farmers practically all lost their farms.
I don't know what would happen to them, maybe they'd start out and try to go in and buy another small farm someplace. But not very many of those guys that actually owned those farms ever started in sharecropping. Sharecropping was generally taken up by guys that started out working as hands, see, by the month. Maybe just working by the day, mixing their jobs up.
About the acreage reduction program, all of that was very much in favor of the man that owned the land, the producer —it didn't make a damn whether he did any work or not. The government contract also stated that the way this was divided up should be decided between the producer and the tenants. And the check went to the producer, so he's sitting now with the check in his hand. Well, he can say, "You guys didn't have to pick this cotton. All you did was to plow it up, so you're not entitled to half of it." And a lot of them never did get anything. Well, since I was what in that section they called the law — that was a fair description of my position in there, because I was the only officer in that section — these people would come to me.
They'd come to me and tell me their troubles see. Tell me that Mr. So-and-so got the check and he hadn't given them anything. The way I saw it, they started out on the shares, and after this farmer had agreed to plow up this cotton, well, I figured that the sharecropper had carried out his part of the contract and I thought that he was entitled to half of it. And a good many of the farmers did; all of them didn't have trouble. Mostly the bigger ones and the crooked ones would only give them a third. As I said, a lot of them never did get anything out of it. I don't know just what the sharecropper could do. The owner is setting there with the check and the money and he can go down and cash it. This guy doesn't have to sign it or anything, he goes down and cashes it and he's got the money in his hand. That was the way the government contract read, that this tenant has to make a deal with the producer.
WILLIAMS: During the Depression I had a crop of my own. And if I had a little leisure time to get off, I'd go over there to the boss' place and pick cotton. And that was for 35 cent a hundred. I was a good cotton picker; and I picked 300 pounds in one day to get me a dollar and a nickel. I'd go out there in the early morning just so you could see a row of cotton. It was hard, but I made it. I tried to keep my own account at the commissary store. But now where the cheating came in was on this stuff you put on the cotton, fertilizer and all that kind of stuff, and in the seeds. When they sell the cotton, they wouldn't give me what the cotton was worth. They put it there and I had to pay it all. I was renting but I wasn't supposed to pay it all. But I had all that to pay. Yes, I owed them at that store everything. I gathered crops so much. And then when I'd get enough crop gathered, then I'd pay him. I had got all my groceries and that would leave me with nothing.
I usually made 40 and 45 bales, more sometimes, and I had enough money to run me through the winter, to buy new children's clothes for school and to buy groceries to last 'til the next time they start to furnish over in the spring. They didn't never give us nothing until the first of April. But I was wise. I'd buy enough of what I couldn't raise to last 'til April or May. I was raising hogs, had cows and made my own garden and put up dry food, beans and peas and all that. I done worked myself to death.
I had to fight for the little parity I got, because they didn't want to give it to nobody. I had a big family and they had to cut off more acres. They said I didn't deserve it, and if I got it, they wanted them checks what we got to pay for some farming debts. But they couldn't get it. The government wasn't giving it to us to pay debts. They was giving it to you to live after they cut acreage. And I didn't stand for it. They didn't like me but they had to take it.
I only sharecropped a couple of years after my husband died. And I'm telling you that sharecropping didn't give me nothing. But now when he was living and we was renting, we could get along a little better. When he died I didn't have nothing but them little chillen. And they'd take everything I'd make so I didn't need to be there. They'd take all my half of it and I had to owe him on his half.
And another thing, they didn't allow no colored chillen to even go to school but seven months, and they made them stay in the field and the white kids was going to school all kind of every way. I wouldn't stick for that now. I taught school until I got so many children I couldn't get nobody to take care of them and it took all I made. But I taught before I had the three little children. And when I got the fourth one I had to quit and take care of them. You know in them days you had to know how to teach everything, from the first to the eighth grade. But I wasn't getting nothing but $35 a month. They raised it to $45 about a month after I quit. But I had to pay somebody to keep my babies. And them people charged me $2, $3 each kid a month. That's $10. And then I had to feed them and go get them, bring them home, had to do this and do that, and when I'd get finished with all that I wouldn't have $10. And I just quit teaching. My husband say, "Go head and quit teaching and sit down and maybe you'll get some peas and okra."
They built a cannery down by our school, and I run the cannery putting up fruits and such. It was the next thing I done, and I made more doing that than I did teaching.
BUTLER: Those were terrible days for everybody — Depression days that made for a lot of people thinking about trying for something better. More and more people got to thinking socialist, you know. Well, I had been a socialist for a long, long time. When I was about 16 years old, I began to read about Gene Debs, you know, and began to see how things was really beginning to work, so I became somewhat of a socialist then, and I still am. I couldn't be anything else and be honest with myself.
My father was a farmer from the time before I was born. In fact, I guess he was born a farmer over in Alabama. And then he did move to Arkansas a while before I was born. Then I never was out of the state of Arkansas until after I was grown. I never went to a, what you would call a high school or anything of that kind. We had a little country school, way out some eight miles from Pangburn where I grew up and went to school in a little one-room country school where one teacher taught everybody, and believe it or not, kids when they'd get through what they would call eighth grade, knew more than the kids that get through high school today.
MITCHELL: I have always said that my family came down the agricultural ladder. My father was a tenant farmer who owned his team and farming tools. My grandfather owned his own farm and lived near Halls, Tennessee. He was also a Baptist preacher. From the time I was eight years old I worked for wages on the farm. I worked for 50 cents per day upwards. I made my first sharecrop about 1919.
I left Halls several times, but returned and graduated from high school there. I had moved around so much that I had missed several grades, but I was permitted to make them up.
During the year 1926 we made another sharecrop, raised cotton, tomatoes and picked strawberries. We had a cash income of $185 for our year's work. About that time my father was operating a barber shop in the town of Tyronza, and he wrote me about how rich the land was in Arkansas. He said, "If you are going to farm, come to Arkansas. This is the place. The land is rich and they raise two bales of cotton per acre.'' He didn't say that the boll weevils got half of it, or three-fourths of it, but that usually happened. I went over to look at a place in Arkansas. There was a plantation owner who was anxious to have me come out. He said I could work part time in the company store and that I could make a crop too. Then I went out and looked at some of those dilapidated houses. One could see daylight by looking up and could see daylight by looking down. I decided immediately that I wasn't going to live in one of those shacks. I was ready to go back to Tennessee where it was a little more civilized.
I was about ready to leave when my father told me there was a pressing shop in the back of his barber shop and the man who had been operating it had just quit. My father advised me to take it. I told him I did not know anything about operating a pressing shop but he said I could learn, and I did learn. I soon had a dry cleaning plant and a booming business. I guess I was a fairly good salesman. I bought a car which I did not know how to drive, one of those old Fords that had to be cranked up. I put a body on it and a sign,"Tyronza Cleaners.'' I went all over the plantations soliciting business and I got a lot of it, especially in the fall of the year when the sharecroppers had a little money. Sharecroppers were allowed whatever money the seed brought. After they ginned the cotton they got the money from the sale of the seed to pay for the picking. They had a saying, "Get the landlord's cotton off my seed." Then they would have a little money to spend. Most of them had at least one Sunday suit and they would usually have it cleaned and pressed. I would pick up the cleaning and return it. Of course, my best customers were the plantation owners, the riders and people of that sort. I made a fairly good income up until about 1931 or '32. Then the bank failed.
Organization of the Union
EAST: Tyronza was a little town, I'd say around 500. Just before we came back from Texas, a mule bogged down there on Main Street and they couldn't get him out and he died in there.
On Sunday everyone would meet the train and get a paper. Not much other place to go and they was always a big crowd at the depot on Sunday morning. In fact, there was generally a bunch of people that would meet the train, which ran twice a day.
The town at one time was built, all of it, right along the railroad track, facing the railroad track with a road between the buildings and the railroad track. And that's the way most towns back there were built at that time, built right up to the railroad track because all their supplies came in by rail and they wanted to be as near to that as they could, because they had to haul all that stuff by wagon. I was from an old-time Tyronza family. My dad had a nice grocery store and farmed on the side. I had a hell of a reputation as a boy. I was one of the worst in town, always into something, even when I was in school.
I couldn't say definitely, but I probably had been running a service station for a couple of years when I first knew Mitch — when he came in there and started that dry cleaning outfit. He traded with me and I looked after his cars. The last time I bought a car for him, it was a Moon; I think I paid $125 for it in Memphis.
Mitch didn't have much to do with other people. As far as us talking about politics or anything, I never had any conversations with him at all until I got to setting around over there doing nothing and figured me out a system I thought we should be operating under and when I went over and talked to Mitchell, he said, "Why, you're a socialist.'' And of course, I was kind of smart-alecky and I told him, "Hell, my hair's not long enough.'' About the only thing I at that time knew about socialism was calling them Bolsheviks; some people said Bolshevikii and we'd see cartoons in the paper about Russians and my grandad always called them "Hoosians." But, that's about as much as I knew about them.
Mitch told me that he'd bring down a book for me to read. I told him then that if it was about socialism, he needn't bring it down to me. So, Mitch said, "You don't have to be so damn narrow minded, you can read it and if it's no good, forget about it." I guess maybe that day or the next day, he come by there and pitched me out a little paper book, Letters to Jud by Upton Sinclair. Well, I never had heard of Upton Sinclair, I didn't know nothing about him. And I started in reading that thing and the more I read, the more sense it made. After that, I knew there was something wrong and everyone else did too.
That was the first one that I read. Then, I was so interested in that thing that I ordered some of them — had a slip on the back where you could order them, and I ordered ten at a time. I read Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy and I read some of Sinclair's larger books.
I was a Minuteman for Oscar Ameringer and was listed in the American Guardian every week as one of the top Minutemen. They listed you in there by the number of new subscribers you got.
Yes, right away, after I read Letters to Jud. That convinced me right then that what, well, it just made sense, that's all.
See, the Socialist Party was what we started first. The only thing that I could tell you about that was Mitch, my brother, and Nunally had about 12 or 14 that went in together and got a state charter. They had the first Socialist charter issued in Arkansas. It must have been in 1931, that's what I would guess. I wasn't in on that because I was running for constable at the time they first organized the Party and got a charter and all, but as soon as the election was over, then I joined the Party and got a card, see.
We thought in terms of a trade union. I don't know if we really ever expected it to happen ... We always wanted a contract signed by all of the plantation owners.
At that time, we was instructed about how to hold meetings. They said to get a group together at home and discuss these things and talk them over. After we got this going, we got the Odd Fellows Hall and had regular meetings in there. And anywhere from 50, I'd say, to 100, 150 maybe, would come to the meetings. Quite often we'd have people from some other surrounding town or something, but most of them were local people. Dr. William R. Amberson from the University of Tennessee was our most active participant. He attended more meetings over there at our socialist "locals" than any one person. He was over there quite often. Mixed meetings weren't held back there until we started up with the union. So this was before the union and I just don't remember any black people being in there at all.
I'd make a lot of talks. I always made a practice of telling stories that showed a comparison between socialism and capitalism and I'd always make fun and show how stupid and silly the capitalist system was, and how much more sensible the socialist movement was. At that time, they had the WPA [Works Progress Administration], which was put out by the government, see. And we always had suggestions or criticism about the way it operated.
See, that was quite a long time before the union started, that had to be in the early part of 1932, and Thomas was campaigning. I don't know whether you know it or not, but he was travelling over the country, he and his wife was driving from city to city in an old Buick. We had this meeting at the Tyronza schoolhouse and had Thomas in there to speak. People were there from Little Rock and Hot Springs, and all over the state. See the papers was full of stuff about these socialists over in Tyronza, so we had folks coming in there from all over the country. All they could get in the schoolhouse auditorium and some standing. I'd say 500 people. We took him around the countryside to these different farms. We took him out to the Norcross plantation, and he went in there and Norcross had this barn with concrete floors and running water for his hogs. Then he goes out to these sharecropper houses and there was no screens and there was flies and holes in the floor and roof and everything. And when he got up to make this talk at the schoolhouse and told about how they was treating the animals so much better, the cows and all too, he had concrete examples.
The way I remember the union getting started — see, in the South we call twelve o'clock "dinner." When Norman Thomas was there to speak we had dinner at my home and during the meal, Norman was the first one that planted that idea in our heads. He told me at that meeting, "What you need here is a union." In other words, the Socialist Party wasn't going to be any help to these tenant farmers. This was after we had taken him out, see, and shown him the conditions in the country and all. And that is where the idea originated, when Thomas told us that. So, after he left, we talked the thing over. Mitchell was actually the big planner in this deal. There was Mitch and myself and two other guys, I think probably Ward Rogers and possibly Alvin Nunnally.
I can't remember just how many there was at the first meeting, but as I remember, it was about 50-50, about half white and half black. But there wasn't any particularly strong dissent against a mixed union. We had to have an understanding among the union members, and you couldn't have much understanding if you had two separate unions. So, we didn't have any complications to amount to anything about that. I got up and I was pretty hot by that time and it was, as I said, getting up pretty late and I told them we'd come down here to decide what or whether we was going to have a union or not, and if we was going to have one, well, let's make up our mind and get some members in here. So I took in the first members. They started signing some cards, we had some cards and all there and these guys joined up.
MITCHELL: We had organized the Socialist Party, too, but that was just to start with, and then as things got worse and the Depression deepened, by 1933, we had 2,000 members of the Socialist Party of Arkansas in the Tyronza area. I became the Secretary of the Socialist Party of Arkansas in 1933. We got Norman Thomas to come down in the early part of '34. This was after Hiram Norcross, the planter, went out and measured all the land he had and evicted 40 families after they had started planting the crop. He didn't like the idea at all, having to pay the sharecroppers half of the government plow-up money. He was arguing that they should just get a third, because they did not have anything invested except their labor. They plowed under every third row of cotton. The next year they agreed to reduce the cotton by 40%. After we organized, we filed a suit against Norcross on the basis of his evicting those 40 odd families and enforcing the rights of the sharecroppers under the AAA contract.
BUTLER: I got this letter from Mitchell and they told me that they were going to have a state socialist convention at Tyronza, and invited me over, and I went. While at that convention, I saw things happening to the people that lived around there that shouldn't have happened to a dog. Clay East, Mitchell, myself and some others decided that a union was about the best thing that could be thought up.
After I had gone back to my sawmill job, I got a call from Mitchell, and he told me that they were ready to start building a union there. In fact, I think they had already had a meeting at which they, well, sort of got together on some ideas. So I went back over again, and we worked out a constitution and started organizing. It wasn't long before we had an organizer or two in jail because the plantation element in that part of the country absolutely did not want them "niggers" organized, and they didn't hesitate to say it in just those words. The whites were niggers, too. There was no difference, and some of 'em was beginning to see that there was no difference. Of course, there was still a lot of prejudice among white people in those days, but hard times makes peculiar bedfellows sometimes, and so some of them were beginning to get their eyes open and see that all of them were being used. So it was easy to get a start on organizing.
None of us who were really interested in getting the work started would agree to having a separate union or separate meetings or anything of that kind. A lot of the Negro people agreed with us because they knew that if they had a meeting with just black people there, they wouldn't have any protection whatever, but a few white people might have protective influence, so it was to their interest really to have all of it together.
We never did have any particular difficulty because of the integrated meetings. We'd have threats, but nobody ever tried to break up a meeting just for that lesson. I think our effort at organizing was actually the beginning of the civil rights movement. Thinking of the thing in an overall picture, you know, I believe that we started something that over the years has been very productive of good results.
Of course we had opposition on every hand, the law enforcement officers and the plantation owners and a lot, even, of the white sharecroppers themselves were opposed to an organization that took in both races. But we overcame all of that to some extent and we were ready. People knew that it just had to happen. They all knew that they were in the same boat and that they all had to pull together. That's about the best way that I know to express it. As soon as we began to tell them what the situation was and what might be done about it, well, they could see that the white people were being treated just the same as the Negroes, and so there was no great opposition at all to integrated meetings.
The first two years, I never drew one penny of salary and but very little expense money. I would go over to Memphis — at first over to Tyronza — and do whatever I could, you know, and then go back to my sawmill job. I was still doing some sawmill work. The mill belonged to my brother. There was no market for lumber to amount to anything. He had a few hands that worked for him all the time and he paid us 50 cents a day for our work and he traded lumber for fat hogs or a cow, or a mule, anything. And if it was eatable, why it was killed and eaten.
Early Days of the Union
MITCHELL: Evictions occurred continuously. We estimate something like a half a million or a million as a result of the cotton plow-up program. The same findings were made by Dr. Calvin Hoover who was doing a survey with Howard Odum, I believe. Their estimates were a little higher than ours. I think his were 900,000 evicted as a result of the cotton plow-up in 1933 and the reduction in the cotton program in 1934.
In the beginning, if a union family was evicted and the family wanted to, we'd put them back in the houses. This was done now and then. Usually the plantation owner didn't want them and most of them didn't want to stay. We did that continuously in 1935 because there just wasn't any place for them to go and many people had come back from the city. There wasn't the relation between the farms and the cities as close as it is today.
They'd go to Chicago, stop first in Memphis, or St. Louis, and then wind up in the Chicago or Detroit area. Many of them, both black and white, went to Detroit after jobs opened in the auto plants.
In the beginning, we were trying to get a section of the law enforced providing that sharecroppers should not be evicted from the land because of the operation of this AAA program. We were trying to get that enforced, but of course, they didn't pay any attention to the law, any more than they do now when poor people are concerned. We filed a lawsuit in the courts, and about the time the lawsuit was being thrown out, we sent a delegation to Washington to see the Secretary of Agriculture, Mr. Henry Wallace, the great liberal. As we always did, we had representation of both whites and blacks; there were two other whites beside me and two blacks, McKinney and another minister, Rev. N. W. Webb, a union organizer from Birdsong, Arkansas.
We got up early in the morning. Because of the inter-racial composition of our group, we drove day and night as there was no place for us to stop and we didn't know what else to do. I had never been to Washington but once. We arrived in Washington early in the morning and pulled up on the side of a street and went to sleep in the car, as we'd done on the way up. I think I drove all the way because nobody else could drive. At 7 a.m. we had a little breakfast somewhere after finding a store that was open. We bought cheese and crackers, bread, baloney, cold drinks, etc. At 7:30 we walked over to the Department of Agriculture. There was no one there but an unarmed guard who told us the Department of Agriculture farmers didn't get there till about 9 o'clock. So we went to see the Washington Monument and that was even closed.
Soon after 9 o'clock we went back to the Department of Agriculture. We marched up the stairs, the guard had told us the Secretary's office was 204. We went right into the Secretary's office, and the receptionist asked who we were and we told her we were a delegation from the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and we wanted to see the Secretary. She asked if we had an appointment. Of course we did not. I never heard of having to make an appointment to "see" anybody before. I hesitated and didn't know what to say. McKinney stepped up and said, "Ma'am, we will just sit down here. If Mr. Wallace is busy, we'll just wait until he gets through and we can talk to him then." The receptionist didn't know what to do with a group of people who intended to sit in the office and wait for Mr. Wallace. About that time I remembered a letter I had addressed to Paul Appleby, the Undersecretary of Agriculture, and I asked her if she would deliver the letter to Mr. Appleby. Paul Appleby came out and soon he got Henry Wallace out there to see us.
Wallace promised to send an investigator down to investigate the displacement of people under the AAA. We evidently put up a rather convincing story to him. Wallace told us he had the right person for the job. She was a lawyer, Mrs. Mary Conner Meyers, who had just finished working on a case for the Treasury Department. It was Capone's income tax evasion case in Chicago. This led to the imprisonment of that racketeer. Wallace said he would see that Mrs. Meyers was sent down to Arkansas. He told us to go back and tell our members we had seen the Secretary of Agriculture and that something was going to be done, but not to say what or who will do it.
STITH: When I heard about the union I lived at a little place called Cotton Plant in Woodruff County. The way I heard about the union was through a friend of mine who was older. We used to run around since neither of us was married. He said to me one night, "Come to the union meeting with me," and I said, "What kind of meeting?" And he said, "A farm tenant union." I said, "What is it good for?" He said, "It's good to make times better for us."
This must have been in 1935. I got in early enough to get in on the strike. Anyway, I says, "Okay, I'll go with you." He said, "It'll cost you a dime to get in." And I said, "I don't have a dime." He said, "I got a dime." So I went to the meeting with him and he paid the dime. That made me a member.
The meeting was at a private home on the plantation that I worked on. However, there were three plantations in that one union local and we rotated. Sometimes we'd be on the plantation I was on. Then they would decide it was best to move to one of the other plantations because the land owners didn't want the union. We were a little bit afraid because they had been beating up and killing a few to try to break the union. So we were afraid to meet at one place too long. We would rotate our meetings, and we had outside guards with shotguns.
I guess there were about 50 people at that first meeting. At one time that union local had a hundred and forty or fifty members, and there were many locals that were larger than that. This one was a combination of three plantations. About 95% of the families on the plantation joined the union.
And that very night my friend got up a motion that I would be made secretary of the union local. I couldn't write much better than he could, I don't think. He was secretary but he wanted to give it up because he didn't think he could write good enough. None of the others could write too well, not so far as writing letters and communications. They could write their name and put down some figures. But when it come down to writing or communicating in a business manner, they didn't. And I hadn't never either, but for some reason I was just able to do it. Actually, my job was really only to keep minutes, read communications and to record and hand down whatever decisions was made by the local. When the local was called on for meetings in Memphis, I usually went. They usually tried to send the person who was thought could get the best understanding and bring it back. Sometimes that would be the local president and/or the secretary. Where they figured the secretary couldn't quite do the job, it might be the vice-president. Of course, in the local I was in, it would always be me that was the one. I guess that give me a lot of courage. They thought I could do it so I always tried. I remained secretary until I moved to Gould in 1947.
I believe the president of our local at the time I joined was Will Curry. Although our local was all black, it had been organized by a white fellow — I can't think of his name — along with a colored man by the name of Farrish Betton from south of Cotton Plant. Betton was later made vice president of the organization. The two together organized the local. Betton wasn't a sharecropper. He was what was known as a tenant. He rented. He lived in this community I call Dark Corner; it's in Monroe County. And he was a justice of the peace in that community. That wasn't an all black community either. It was about 70% black. The white man who was justice of the peace had died. Before his death he requested from the quorum court that they make Betton justice of the peace because he was the only other qualified person in the area then. He had a high school education which was at that time good. And he stayed justice of the peace until he left there. Of course, he had some trouble — out of both races, in fact. And he had all kinds of threats, even after he got in the union, not for being justice of the peace, but because he was in the union. He was told to get out. I remember him telling me that from time to time some of the white people — and I use the word because he used it — would come to him and tell him, "Look, Betton, you're justice of the peace and you're too good a man to be mixed up with these low class people. So the best thing for you to do is just get out of it.''
They tried to separate people by class, and they tried to do it by race. Which ever was best to use, they used it. It worked on a lot of people, and some people it just didn't work on. For instance, the agent on the plantation where I lived wanted to join the union because he knew the problem, but he was afraid to. And he says to me, "Now George, look, I know you. Anything y'all need that I can give you, just tell me. Information or anything else, I'd get it."
We were a mass movement, something like the civil rights movement 30 years later.
Our local had all kinds of committees for whatever we thought was necessary. We had program committees, we had committees to make decisions on strikes. When we elected the first strike committee, it was made standing. Anytime we decided on a strike, this committee was consulted and told what the problem was. Strikes were talked about all the time, all the time. Strikes was actually voted on by a local at the STFU headquarters in Memphis. The union would call in the locals. They would say to the locals, this is what we have in mind. The secretary would tell the local to decide whether it was a good thing. Then they would send their representatives over to Memphis. Somehow we got them there, a lot of times I don't know how. But when we got to Memphis, a decision was made. Because legal procedures and very little of the law was on our side, a strike was always decided in Memphis. It were talked about by the executive committee, which usually involved a person from almost every area, at least from every state. Where unions was heavy, we had it broke up into areas or districts. For instance, this area local was in Pine Bluff, and the executive committee would decide which would be best. They would report their decisions back to the locals. Sometimes the idea for a strike would come from the local. The local would write in and say, well this is what is happening here; we believe if we could have a strike, it might could do some good. The executive branch of the union would look into it. If they thought it feasible, they'd say go ahead and have a "local." This was known as a local strike. But most of the time we tried to do it on a larger basis because it was more effective. Plantations used one against the other. For instance, if we struck on this plantation and the other two around didn't strike, they would be used against us. The owners would say, "Look, such and such a thing is happening over here, go over and help him out."
Racial makeup of a local depended a lot upon the area where you organized. Agriculture labor, especially in the cotton fields, at that time was about 85 or 90% black so your membership normally ran just like your area. In Arkansas in the early days of the union. I think our white support was an over-average percentage compared to their population at large. Our white membership at one time ran higher than 15% whites, much higher, especially in certain areas. And it increased as the union spread into other states. In parts of Alabama there was nothing but whites.
It was a community thing. Naturally the communities were segregated. That's why we had segregated locals, because whites and blacks usually didn't live on the farm together.
There were locals that were integrated though. When we first started there was no integrated local. Even though white and black organized together, it was set up on the basis of race. Let me tell you this. When I went to Louisiana in 1953 down in the sugar cane fields, we had the same situation there. Certain plantations were all black and certain plantations were all white. The first time I went to a place called Raceland to make a talk to a group of sugar cane workers, I was the first Negro, except the janitor, that had his foot in the American Legion Hall. The workers were all white, and I went in there that night, and they looked at me sort of funny and said, "Is this who gon' talk?''
Later when we had our district meeting to bring our locals from the whole sugar cane area together, you had the whites and the blacks. And when they sat down and talked and thought of the situation, they decided we were all in the same boat. So they said, "Well, when are y'all gonna meet, we want to come over. When we're gonna meet, we want y'all to come over." Now this was a thing that just happened. I mean segregation run out so far as the union was concerned. They couldn't see segregation.
No. The whites had problems as well as we did. Usually we held it in a church or a country schoolhouse. A lot of time they were held without authority, but we could always get in. But the whites had a problem. Where they belonged to a church, the higher ups also belonged, and they couldn't get the church to have a meeting. So they had to come to a Negro place in order to have a meeting place.
In 1935, Norman Thomas again came to Arkansas and attempted to speak in the community of Birdsong. The meeting was broken up by a crowd of angry planters and lawmen, and Thomas was assured that no "gawd-damn yankee bastard" was welcome in Arkansas. Union organizer, Ward Rogers, had been arrested earlier when he threatened "to lead a group that would lynch every planter in Poinsett County." In the "reign of terror" that followed, union meetings were banned and union members were arrested on the slightest pretext. The union moved it headquarters to Memphis, and its officers depended on dark nights, fast cars, and back roads to get them in and out of the state safely. Acting under pressure, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration sent an attorney, Mary Conner Myers, into the state to investigate the massive evictions and wave of repression. Mrs. Myers was considered an "impartial" observer, but the report that she subsequently wrote for the department was considered too controversial to be released.
STITH: After what happened at Tyronza where they beat up a few and maybe killed some of them, we decided on a local basis that we had to put up some kind of defense if we were going to meet. We were not just going to let people come in. And this is what I heard a lot of: "We're not gonna let them do us like they did in Elaine, just come and kill us out. So we gon' be prepared." I didn't know too much about the Elaine riot, though my father was there. But we never had cause to use our guns.
I think most of the whites and some of the blacks did decide not to have guns, but around Cotton Plant area, we didn't see it. Where the plantations was larger and more controlled, you had more trouble. The smaller plantations — I lived on a smaller plantation — we didn't have as much trouble, yet they resented organizing and they put out threats. But they didn't have as much Ku Klux kind of power in that area as in some other areas.
MITCHELL: We had a system of guards, inner guards and outer guards. We didn't call it a defense committee, but they were provided to warn the members in the meeting if any trouble was about to start. The guards were not armed. We did one other thing because of this Elaine catastrophe as we knew that the colored people would be slaughtered as well as people like Clay East and me. We decided that under no circumstances would the union retaliate, no matter what happened. We would try to influence public opinion and attempt to get the public on our side. If we had fought back it would have been our Negro members who suffered most. We were sure of that fact and we didn't want another Elaine Massacre.
In the records of the union there is a set of instructions we sent to members of the union about attending union meetings. We advised them not to go in groups of more than two or three at a time. They were to go quietly to the meeting place and to have their outer guards and inner guards watching. If the planters came, the guards were to notify the members to disperse. If they wanted to sing, that was all right, but they should keep their voices low. We had this all worked out.
We had friends, national and regional. First of all, of course, was Norman Thomas, who had access to radio and newspapers. In Memphis we had a friend at the University of Tennessee Medical College, a rather famous physiologist, Dr. William R. Amberson. Dr. Amberson was a man of great standing and he had access to the local newspaper. In addition there was also a Socialist local in Memphis so we were not entirely without contacts. And, of course, the entire Socialist and labor union press were aware of our movement down in Arkansas.
DILWORTH: I'll tell you the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union had a secret society. When we first opened up to try to build an organization, you'd have to go to different towns and different places. We would have signs when we'd get off the bus or off the train or out of the car, so you could get to see if there was any members there. Just rub your right hand across your face this away (gestures, rubbing back of right hand across forehead from left to right). We also had something you had to say to get into the union hall.
EAST: We went over in a different section to a Negro church and Butler was there and Mitch was there and myself and possibly another speaker or so, I don't know. We had a good turnout, possibly 100-150 tenant people in there. And just before we got the meeting started, here come one of the big planters from over there, Mr. Sloan.
He came in with a couple of big deputies, see, with their pistols buckled on them and he just came marching in there. He wanted to see what was going on. Well, you don't know how a lot of those colored people felt back there when the boss man comes in and sees them at a union meeting. They was a little bit shaky, but I'll say this, that the colored guys back there, if anything, were more solid than the whites. They'd go ahead and sacrifice and get killed or beat up or anything else before they'd give up.
I had a big six-shooter on and a pretty bad reputation if I do say it, not a bad reputation, but they knew that I wouldn't do to fool with. So, I got up and told them that "If you folks are going to be scared because your boss has walked in here and so forth, just quieten down, now this thing is perfectly legal. We've got corporation papers and we got our constitution." Well, he wanted a copy of this, Mr. Sloan did. So Mitch says, "Well, if you've got ten cents, you can have one." So he sold him a copy of the constitution. And then Mitch proceeded to tell him, "Well, you folks are not eligible for membership in this, so we'll ask you to leave.'' And I have often wondered what he would have done if Sloan had refused. But at the time, he got up and walked out. He and his men went trudging out of there with his six-shooters and all, see.
We got a raft of members signed up at that meeting. You didn't need much. Those folks were in a bind and they was being mistreated and when you got up and pointed these things out to them, why you didn't have much trouble signing them up. Practically all the people that came to meetings signed up.
Crittenden County was an outlaw outfit, I'm telling you, the law was. Howard Curlin was the sheriff and they had the roughest, toughest bunch of gangster officers that they could collect. They didn't pay any attention to the government or anyone. I've been in their jail and seen this big leather strap; they didn't try to hide it or anything. And you couldn't get a reporter or a lawyer out of Memphis to go into Marion. They wouldn't take a case of any kind. You couldn't get them to go in there. They'd say, "Naw, we won't go in there, not to Crittenden County.'' And Mary Conner Myers was sent down there from Washington; Roosevelt sent her down there. That was the report they would never publicize because it was so hot. She helped break up the Capone Gang in Chicago and all, so she knew what rough stuff was, and she said that Capone and all them boys was sissies beside this bunch down in Arkansas. And that's the report she come out and made in Memphis, see, after she'd been over there. But the full report was never published. They never made it public after she went back to Washington.
BUTLER: Not too long after we began organizing, one of our Negro organizers got thrown in jail in Marion, so a bunch of us went down to get him out. We knew that if there wasn't something drastic done that he would just be kept in there for however long. So we gathered up a bunch of white people, white members of the union, and we got a big truck and took a load of 15 or 20 white people. All of them were cripples, they all had to have some kind of support, a walking stick of some kind. I think most of them felt like a stick of some kind might help them out. They might have to have some sort of protection. People were scared in those days, people had always been controlled by the plantation owners and their henchmen, the sheriffs and the deputies and all that, and people were afraid of the law because those laws would beat a man up. They could throw him in jail and keep him as long as they wanted to. A man didn't have a chance to fight if he wasn't a plantation owner. They could charge him with anything and he was guilty.
So we drove up on the courthouse yard and they began to pile out of the truck, and Mitchell was along. I was there. Ward Rogers was there too. And here came the sheriff or the deputy perhaps to meet us with his hands back of him. "Now Ward, we don't want any trouble here. I'm gonna bring that fellow down and turn him over to you. We're gonna turn him loose.'' He brought the man down from the jail and turned him over to us and we went on back home, and we didn't even have to ask him could you do it, when he saw that crowd get out, you know.
One time Powers Hapgood, who later on became the state director of the CIO for Indiana, came down and spent a while with us in the early days of the union. And he and I one day went over into Arkansas to see this man Stultz. We were not bothered on the way in; we parked outside on the roadway and went through a gate on down to the sharecropper cabins where Stultz was living. We talked with him and when we started back out, here came the riding boss, or whatever his title might have been, along with four or five others, and they attempted to cut Hapgood and I off from getting out, but we beat them to the gate and headed for our car. They passed by where a bunch of scrap lumber was and they all grabbed pieces of scrap lumber and took out after us. Well, Hapgood had locked the doors of the car — I hadn't thought to tell him not to do it, but he had — so he was working as fast as he could and he got the door open and I got in and we had a big .38 special pistol in the glove compartment. So, as soon as he got the door where I could get it open, I was in there and had that gun. So, that car had a running board, you probably have seen cars with running boards, so I stood on the running board with one hand on the inside of the car and held the gun in the other hand. I told Powers, "Get the hell out of here, before I have to kill one of them.'' So, as quick as he could start the car, we left. By the time he got ready to roll, they were as close to us as the door there. And they would have beat us up; I don't know if they would have killed us, probably wouldn't. But they would have beaten us up if they had caught us.
I carried a gun most of the time. Of course, if I had ever had to use it, why, I'd have been in trouble. But I would have used it if I had to. There was a lot of violence against union members. Any number of union people were visited at night by sometimes one maybe, sometimes half a dozen, and maybe their houses shot at, anything they thought would discourage them and get them out of the union. But I don't believe the Klan, actually as a Klan, was ever any — sometimes I want words, and can't think of the words I want — I don't think the Klan gave us as much trouble as just individuals.
There was one thing that I thought about telling you, a little incident that occurred during the time of the union. Over at Earle, Arkansas, there was a plantation man that was also a deputy sheriff and he needed some work done on his farm, so he got around and arrested, I believe, 11 members of the union and threw 'em in jail. When they had their trial the judge turned them over to him then to work out their fines, and he put them out on his plantation under guard, and had them working out there. We found out about it and we got some pictures by a man crawling around through cotton rows and making pictures and so on. Well, we brought charges against them in the Department of Justice.
The Department of Justice sent two lawyers down to Memphis to check. Well, old Peacher had got scared enough that he'd turned all these people loose. When these Department of Justice investigators came down there, they said, "Now we will not go into Arkansas to make any investigation, but if you can get some of those people and bring 'em here to Memphis, we'll question 'em." So I went to Earle, and ran across one or two of the fellows that had been enslaved. They gathered up others, and they had about seven of them around my car, telling me about what had been done and how and all that, and here came a deputy sheriff. His name was Graham, he rammed his car up close to mine, jumped out, grabbed a .38 out of his holster, slammed it down across the door into my ribs, and said, "What the goddamned hell are you doing over here?" Well, I knew I had to tell him something, so I said, "Well, I'm over here getting the evidence that's gonna send you and Paul Peacher and a few more of you to the penitentiary for the rest of your lives." I said, "The FBI knows exactly where I am. They know exactly what I'm doing, and they know exactly when to expect me back in Memphis, and if I'm not there, they're gonna find out why." He jerked the gun down, slammed it back in his holster, and said, "All right." He got back in his car and pulled out.
Well, when that happened, all of the fellows that had been around talking with me just disappeared except for three, and those three stayed with me and were still talking, and we saw a car go down the road towards Memphis that was loaded with about a half a dozen men with rifles and so on. One of these guys said, "They're going down to waylay us." Then I said, "Now, do you know of a way that we can go that will take us back to highway 70?" One of 'em said, "Yes, I know. We'll have to go through one man's wash lot." I said, "That don't make any difference, let's get down to highway 70." So we went to highway 70 so we could go into Memphis on a different road, you know, instead of on highway 64. I told the fellow, "Now, get down in back and stay quiet because we're going in. If somebody gets in our way, were still going in." I had that big old Hudson that I'd bought. Well, I opened it up and we went. We expected — I expected really — that they would try to block me at West Memphis, but they didn't. I think some of them might have been parked around there, but they didn't try to block the highway. So I went on through and I got the men over there and the Department of Justice men asked them enough questions to get enough for an indictment and we got Paul Peacher indicted and convicted of peonage.
EAST: There was this guy from the Workers Alliance, Dave Benson, and a bunch of colored folks that had been put in jail over at Forrest City. That was in Cross County, see. They had been put in jail for inciting to riot, and this boy, Benson, was in for no driver's license. They had a bunch of trumped up charges against him. We couldn't get a lawyer in Memphis to take the case and I went and got this lawyer from Little Rock. I had a fast automobile, a '35 Tereplane, and I still wasn't scared to go into Arkansas. When a union man went into Arkansas, he was taking a good chance of getting killed or at least beat up.
I don't remember the lawyer's name, but his father was one of the attorneys that defended the Scottsboro boys.
When we got to Forrest City, he went into the courthouse and the men came up for trial. It was so tense. I was setting in the back of the courtroom myself and an old colored guy passed by and there was this old cripple man setting there with a damn walking cane and he hit at him just as hard as he could. That thing was so tense you could just feel it in the air. I knew it was bad.
This guy from the Workers Alliance told the lawyer, "Don't do a damn thing for me; this thing is too bad." He had been in jail there for several days, and he realized what the situation was.
Well, when this attorney left the courthouse, there was a damn mob following him — a bunch in a group, see. And they followed him down to my car. I started down there, and this guy took off and the mob turned on me. The lawyer went down to a cafe to get something to eat and the boys went and took him out of that damn cafe and I understand beat him up and put him on a bus and told him, "Don't you ever come back into Forrest City, or we'll kill you."
Well, this man Bunch, he led this mob on me, telling them all I had done. He had that mob ready. Well, they was backing me up, they was on me and they was hollering, "Kill the son of a bitch," and all this kind of stuff. I backed into a kind of ditch and fell on my back, and when I fell, I had my head up against a hedge and these guys was trying to get ahold of me. I was just laying on my hips and I'd wheel and kick one and every time one would get close to me, I'd kick the hell out of him. And some big guy — never did know who he was — got right straddle of me and told these guys, said, "Get the hell off of him. Leave him alone." Well, I got up and they was hollering, "Kill him!" and all that kind of damn stuff and I told them, "Now listen. If I've violated any kind of law or done anything, then put me in jail." I could see that they didn't have much of a leader and the jail was just right up there behind the courthouse.
They put me in jail and then they was just marching through and saying, "Goddamn, we'll hang you tonight. We'll break your neck," and all this kind of stuff. And, some gals come in there and I could see they thought, "Why, that's a damn shame to hang that nice looking boy like that." And an old boy that I went to school with down in Blue Mountain, was a bookkeeper for someone up there, and he come in. He never did speak to me and I didn't say anything to him and I could see him shaking his head to think, "By God, old Clay's one of the top boys at school and to think he's in something like this." And they was calling me "nigger-lover" and all that stuff.
Well, Sheriff Campbell come in there. Of course, he knew I was the deputy sheriff over in Poinsett County, knew I was from a good family and all and he didn't want this damn thing. He was afraid he might be getting in a little trouble about that. If I'd been a flat stranger, he just might have made a different story and that's one way I always had it figured. I could do better by myself than I could with someone with me. He come in there and asked me, "East, would you like to get out of here?" And I told him, "Why sure, I haven't done a damn thing. I haven't violated any law. They got no right to put me in jail." So, he said, "Well, we're gonna take the state rangers and take you out." I told him, "Well, O.K." Well, that's when this boy spoke up and said, 'Clay, you're a damn fool if you go out of here. They're just laying a trap for you. If you go out of here, they'll get you just sure as the world." And I told him, "Well, I'll take a chance on that. I'm going out." Well, there were three of these guys, there was a captain and two other guys, all in uniform. I still wasn't scared, I didn't believe that any damn guys would get me, somehow. So, that's what I'm telling you, that ain't bravery, you've got nothing to be brave about. The only time that I was afraid was when I walked down there with that damn lawyer, because I knew these guys was fixing to nail me. And, I had sat in that courtroom when I could feel that tension. You've never been in anything like that, I don't imagine. It was terrible. Everybody in there was so damn tight.
Well, anyway, we got in the car and started out toward Memphis. By that time, the captain and this other guy was following us, and already two or three carloads of guys was on the road after us. So, I told this guy, "Now, if those guys catch up with us, there ain't a damn bit of use of you getting hurt. You either give it to me or give me a chance to get that damn gun of yours and I'll get out and get away from you and you won't get shot." Those guys was really gonna shoot us up. And he said, "They're not getting by the captain back there." He said, "We've started out to take you into Memphis and that's where we're going to take you." But, I still figured they'd get us at West Memphis, but they didn't and there wasn't anybody else that showed up. After we got to the bridge, the guy got out on this end of the bridge and I thanked him for taking me in there and I went right down to the Press-Scimitar and told them about what had happened and they come out in the paper that afternoon with big headlines about what had happened over there.
They hired this lawyer from Helena, Arkansas. They couldn't get a Memphis lawyer to go over there for nothing. Man, they wouldn't cross that river. Not for the union. But Mitch — I'm quite certain that it was Mitch — contacted someone and found out about this guy some way and he said hell yes, he'd take the case. And he took it and went to Forrest City and this damn gang ganged up on him and he told them, "You men are a bunch of fools. I'm an attorney, I'm working for a living. I don't care nothing about them niggers and croppers in there. All I'm interested in is in the money. I've put in a lot of time in school and been out a lot of expense in order to make a living being an attorney. I don't care nothing about these people." And they let the damn fool go ahead and plead the case and he got these guys out.
In September of '35, the union called its first major strike. Nearly 5,000 cotton pickers responded by staying out of the fields. No written contracts were gained, but most of the planters eventually agreed to pay higher wages. More important than the wages, however, was the boost to union membership. Following the strike, chapters were spontaneously organized in Oklahoma, Missouri, Tennessee, and Mississippi. By the end of the year, the union claimed a membership of 25,000.
STITH: The strike of '35 was one of the most unique things ever happened. It was well planned. We decided after meeting a half a dozen times — and when I say we, every area had representatives, locals and from districts. We met in Memphis and talked this thing over starting back in early plantin' season about what we would have to do about trying to get some better wages because living costs had went up and wages wasn't going up. There was a lot of day labor involved. We had been able to get some of the things adjusted like commissaries or brozeen; a lot of that had disappeared. But the wages just wasn't going up any.
After meeting several times beginning in the early fall, I think it was, and working on this thing for another year, we decided upon a cotton picking strike. In the cotton picking season cotton is perishable to a certain extent. Cotton has got to get out of the field and get ginned up before the weather gets bad or you take a loss on your cotton; the quality of it goes down.
So we had decided a general strike would be the thing. But it taken a lot of planning to figure out how we were going to do it. The executive committee finally got together and had all these handbills printed up, brought them in and made packages to go to each area according to what they thought their needs would be. And they had them all out there. And then we set a strike date. All the representatives came in and got their strike handbill with strict instructions. They didn't put them out until that night, eleven o'clock was the time. And that night at eleven o'clock, they was all over Arkansas, Missouri, part of Tennessee, part of Mississippi and Alabama. And when foremen got up the next morning and found so many, they said an airplane put them out. And we did it all by hand or car. It was all done at the same time and that scared the farmers to death. They wouldn't agree to sign a contract with the union, but they started to make concessions to the labor. Well that's really what we were looking for; we was trying to make things better for the people. We'd love to have had a contract but we never dreamed of a contract. We thought it was impossible and it turned out to be just about that.
DILWORTH: It was Sunday night. We got our papers together at eleven o'clock exactly. Everyone, all over Arkansas where there was an organization alive, had to be on the job at 11:00 passing out leaflets. We'd cover this street, then we'd go to another. We ain't supposed to go back there on the same route because if you do, somebody is gonna see one of them things. Oooh, I don't know how many we passed out. We spread them handbills saying, "Don't go to the fields and pick no cotton,'' over every street in this town.
I was riding in my car. Marie Pierce, a student from Memphis, was riding in the back seat with Mr. Bolden. Mrs. Burton and I sat in the front. I was laying down on my stomach holding the door cracked open, and I'd push the leaflets through the crack and spread them out in the street. You pick up speed and that'd just make them things go flying all over the yards.
By the time we got down by Mr. Dean's house, we had done the whole route. Then this car came swooping by us. I said, "Cut the lights off and let's go right into these woods." We got down in a little curl and cut the motor off. If they had caught us, I don't know what they would've done to us. But, they couldn't tell where we was. They went out there where they was fixing the levee and got stuck in the mud. Water was up to our knees in the car. It was three o'clock that next morning when we got home and it was still raining. It wasn't no easy job.
White folks thought a plane had flown over there and spread all them leaflets. They were all over the state.
MITCHELL: There was a kind of unofficial bargaining. They wouldn't recognize the union as such, but they'd watch to see what the union was going to demand, particularly after that cotton picking experience of 1935. We'd call a wage conference every year, maybe twice a year, with several representatives from each local union, and they would decide what we were going to ask for. Often, we'd make a survey of our members and have a ballot to see what they thought the union should ask. We'd do this before the wage conference. Then we'd tabulate all of the returns and say, here's what the members think that we can get. The conference would determine we can get a dollar per hundred this time. We would try that. We would announce that the union was demanding a dollar per hundred pounds for picking the cotton. We'd invite all plantation owners to meet with us to work out a contract and an agreement, but of course, they never did. This had the same general effect as a wage contract. It was kind of the old IWW idea. If you didn't have a contract, then you take action on the job. If the boss didn't pay the union rate, the people quit work and went somewhere else — where the union scale was paid.
We thought in terms of a trade union. I don't know if we really ever expected it to happen. At least we used all of the usual union terms. We didn't just go out and say this is the way we're going after it. We always wanted a contract signed by all of the plantation owners. We would work out model contracts. We had proposed contracts for sharecroppers and contracts for tenants and wage workers and we had circulated them around. Sometimes the fellows on the plantation would take them to the owner and ask him to sign the union contract. Sometimes they got thrown off the land as a result of doing that. The nearest thing that we ever had to such a contract was at the end of 1935. The lawyer for the union, whose name was Herman Goldberger, had been meeting with a plantation owner by the name of C.H. Dibble. Mr. Dibble was fair and liberal for that area. He'd come from some other area of the country and owned a medium sized plantation. He had, as I recall, thirteen families which meant 500 or 600 acres of cotton. Word got out that Dibble was negotiating a union contract. He was told by his banker that if he signed a contract with the union they would foreclose his mortgage and that he had to get rid of the union members. He served them notice about Christmas that they were going to be evicted if they did not move by the first of the year. Maybe we made a mistake, I don't know, but we laid down the law to Mr. Dibble at our convention that if he tried to evict these people, we were going to put them back in their houses. We said we were going to put a picket line around his plantation. It became a question as far as the entire community was concerned. I mean, the upper class part of it, the guys on the right side of the tracks had Mr. Dibble do what he had threatened to do — evict all these families, which he proceeded to do. He threw them out in the middle of the winter.
BUTLER: Sometimes I would just go to New York and make personal appeals to people. One of the ladies who took a big interest in raising funds for the union would make an appointment for me to see this one or that one or some other one and I'd go and try to talk them into making the donation. Donations was the only funds that we ever had in the union that amounted to anything because nobody was ever able to pay any dues: there was no money to pay dues with. Sometimes we'd take a dozen Negroes, just the pure old sharecropper type Negroes, and let them make these appeals for funds. Sometimes that worked better than for me to do it. Of course we never did have any funds ahead, we never did have enough money at any time to operate on, but we wouldn't have had anything if it hadn't been for that.
The Workers Defense League was one of our chief supporters. They raised a lot of money and they collected a lot of clothing, things of that kind and shipped down to distribute to the ones who were most in need. Our relation with the Workers Defense League was very close and very good. I'm not sure that went for everyone in the organization, but generally speaking that was the truth.
There was a New York committee that put on what they called National Sharecroppers Week. I was in New York I guess all of the week that had been designated and any number of others were there. Mrs. Roosevelt was at the big final meeting that we had that week; the Saturday night meeting. That committee had hired a professional fundraiser to organize a week of fund-raising. I don't know what percentage they gave him for his labor, but they did raise quite a bit of money. I guess that at the end of that week, the union treasury had more money in it at one time than it ever had before or since. Might have had as much as two or three thousand dollars. I think they tried to do it over a time or two.
There was no definite salary. After some interest built up in New York and we began to get some contributions in, why I put in full time and I put in for expenses, you know. For gas and oil and for rooms to live in and so on. That was allowed out of whatever contributions we were getting.
For awhile, Mitchell got along the same way that I did. That is, he just drew enough out for himself and his family to live on. And I stayed with him part of the time, too. We did anything we could to cut the expenses and then later, in 1937, when we joined up with UCAPAWA, they arranged for me to have a salary of fifty dollars a week. So that went on for three or four months, as long as we stayed with it. I was about to get rich.
DILWORTH: I went to New York to make a speech for Sharecroppers' Week in 1946. Frank P. Graham sponsored me. I sat at the speaker's table, and everything you picked up carried their workers on it. I said, Lord have mercy. Every table was covered with white linen and there was somebody round every table. I couldn't see nobody. I just saw this clear blue sky. I made my speech, and when I got through, folks was just patting. I didn't a bit know what I said. I talked about ten minutes. And whenever I come to myself so that I could see the audience out there, I said, "We are climbing Jacob's ladder, and every rung goes higher and higher. We're going to organize the South as God being our helper.'' And the people just hollered. This was in the Henry Hudson Hotel. I stayed there five nights, room 284. And when I come out, I had integrated the hotel. I was the first colored to stay there.
In 1937, the Union, anxious to be a part of the CIO, affiliated with the United Cannery Agricultural Packinghouse and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA). It was an uneasy and strained relationship from the beginning. The STFU found it virtually impossible to comply with the bureaucratic guidelines of the international union, and the UCAPAWA President, Donald Henderson, was neither sensitive to the union's needs, nor very astute in his assessment of the divisions that should be made among agricultural workers. Finally in 1939, the Executive Council of the STFU voted to withdraw, but not before the union had been torn apart by internal strife and its ranks depleted.
BUTLER: We joined the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America [UCAPAWA] in 1937. We had to convince them at Denver, and we went, and everything went along pretty smooth. I was made vice-president. It was supposed to be one union then, but like I say, it didn't work out. I thought it would be a good thing if we could do it, but when we tried it, we couldn't do it. The UCAPAWA had a set of officers that were determined to control everything, and the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union wasn't ready to be controlled, never was.
Well, I think they thought that it would be a big boost to their membership for one thing. UCAPAWA was practically a paper union. They didn't have any members to amount to anything at all, but since they were a part of the CIO, they were considered more important. So we joined in with them as I said, and it wasn't but a little while until they began trying to tell us what we had to do and how we had to collect dues and how we had to send a certain amount of dues to the UCAPAWA offices and all that sort of thing. We never could collect any dues, we never did. Oh, maybe one man would pay a dime a month, maybe a dime would roll in at the end of the year. People didn't have it and there was no such thing as collecting dues. So we pulled out then, pulled out of UCAPAWA.
STITH: McKinney was a communist, but I don't think his views were so different than mine when it comes down to the lower class man, the little man, especially the farmer. But I think his difference of opinion was where we should be as a union. Partially, he did, I know, agree with UCAPAWA about the organizing of farmers in one union, sharecroppers in another, and tenants in another. And that's where the difference came about between us, because we couldn't see it in that light. We felt like that was a policy that would divide us instead of putting us together. He was stubborn about what he believed to be right — about principles. I don't know anything about his background:
At that time I was very young. I was active in the union and only concerned with its activities.
MITCHELL: We thought, and our people thought, that the CIO was going to sweep the whole country and was going to organize all the unorganized. That's what they talked about; they were going to bring about a complete change in the lives of everybody and make things better. Everybody was enthused about the CIO. John L. Lewis standing, defying the automobile companies saying, "Shoot me before you fire on these men who were in the factories, the sitdowns." It was inspiring to people who didn't know any better, who didn't know John Lewis, a business trade unionist whose interest was in getting a huge membership that could pay union dues. We wanted to be a union. We wanted to be in the mainstream of organized labor. We just felt that we must get into the CIO.
We thought and wrote in 1935 and 1936 to the AFL about the possibility of a charter as a national union. The response from Secretary Morrison was not very encouraging. I don't remember the exact words, but he considered us farmers and the AFL had fraternal relations with the Farmers' Union, the Grange and Farm Bureau, and they wouldn't be interested at that time. It was not until after the CIO experience that we even tried to get the AFL consideration.
We were naive, I guess. The ordinary trade unionist never understood the STFU. We were a mass movement, something like the civil rights movement 30 years later. We could have opened the doors in areas where there were farm people. We could have moved into the farming areas around any industrial area. We could have become a great political force, and been a great voice for the CIO in rural America. That's what we thought, that's what we saw in the CIO.
STITH: I wasn't a full-time organizer until I moved to Gould. I still had a crop. I'd get up at five o'clock every morning and go to the field and do a day's work. I was a share tenant, I rented. I had a mule outfit to farm with; I had all my own tools and my own stock. If it was possible I would leave the day's work off and do it the next day, then I would leave and go do what the union wanted me to do. If not, I tried to do a day's work and go at night to do what they wanted me to do. I didn't have a car then. If it wasn't anywhere but 10 or 20 miles, I'd ride a horse. If it was farther, we always had one or two union people around who had a car who were willing to take me and the union got the gas.
The problem was that blacks in the agriculture field didn't have leaders with enough education to do what was necessary. That's number one. And number two, a black man wasn't recognized enough to get into the places where he needed to go, even if he had enough education. Even at that time government organizations didn't look at a black man too much. So a black person as president could not have been too successful in getting a lot of outside help. It was the major role of the union to bring in outside support, money, etc. It had to be. It was the only way we could survive. We had no funds. The members didn't have enough money to pay dues to the organization for it to operate. We had to have outside help. A black man was discussed sometimes, to my remembrance, as being president. And I was discussed at one time. But we decided, and it was partly my decision along with others, blacks and whites, that if a black man got to be president it might divide us. So we decided, well at least we'll put him in second spot, make him vice-president.
This is the way most blacks wanted it. There were some few who felt like they were able to lead. When one was found, and he felt that away, we always found somewhere to put him in a leadership position. I really got put into it. I didn't feel like I was a leader. I just wanted to help get things better. But they felt like I was, and they put me into it.
At that time we had a family membership. Where there was a widow involved, she was the head of the family, so she took out a legal membership. But where there was a man and his wife involved, she was a member too. She had a voice when it come down to talking or voting on.
Women were very active and made a lot of the decisions. Women decided to do things that men felt like they couldn't do. We had several locals around Cotton Plant and I believe in one of the locals all the officers were women. This was because men were afraid. Owners never bothered women. They never beat up any women. Oh yes, I think they did in Mississippi and maybe one place in Arkansas. But usually they would pick on the men. They was a little bit slow about bothering women. They might go to her and talk to her. And women look like always were apt to move out. They would walk up and say to the plantation owner, look, this is what I ain't gonna do.
In this case usually men took the first step. You'd always find somebody who felt it was not a woman's job. It's all right if we gonna use some women for help. And even though he might have been afraid, somebody always stepped forward. There are cases where women said, "I will," first and a man would say, I'll do it, you don't have to."
I remember a lady by the name of Henrietta Green who was very outspoken. She was in the Howell local. At one time we were working on this large plantation that was rented. The manager didn't own it. He rented it from a widow. In making a sharecrop, instead of getting half of your corn, we got one-third of it. The manager said he had to give the lady owner a load; he took a load, and we'd take a load. So the union met and decided that we wasn't going to make any more crops on the third. It would have to be half. Henrietta Green, a strong woman in the Howell local, and my father, who was pretty active here locally, and I forget who the other person was, were the three people who made the decision that they would be the ones that would walk up to the boss and say, "We're not going to make it any more on thirds. We want half our corn." Henrietta was an older woman. She was along the age of my father. This is the way they rationalized it: I'm older than you are, and I don't have much to lose. Anyway, the manager answered, no! So they refused to plant corn. He said he didn't care. But everyone on the Howell plantation refused to plant corn. Ten days later the manager said he'd pay them half.
BUTLER: We considered the whole family as members of the union when any one of them, either the man or his wife, got interested, why we just counted them in as members of the union. We were not discriminatory in any way, so far as I recall.
Yes, we had some women, and especially there was one that could make just about as good a speech as any of the men could. Henrietta McGee was her name. She went with us on trips to New York and Washington, one place and another and made speeches before groups and was a big help in getting contributions, because she got right down to earth with the things that she had to say.
She was a widow from over there in eastern Arkansas somewhere, I don't know which town she was from, but she was as active as any other union member that we ever had. And, to give you an idea of her character, she went with some of us to Atlantic City to the first convention of the CIO as a separate organization from the AFL. While we were there, I remember all of us went to a restarant for a meal one time. Mrs. Roosevelt was there. Several of us went in and set down at the same table and Henrietta was in the group. She was black. Well, this waitress wouldn't serve her at all and Mrs. Roosevelt saw that the waitress wouldn't serve her. So Mrs. Roosevelt went over and invited Henrietta to come over and sit at her table. The same waitress came along and she didn't dare refuse, because of Mrs. Roosevelt, you know. So, she tried to apologize to Henrietta. She said, "You know, a while ago, I didn't know that you were a Puerto Rican.'' Well, she said, "I'm not. I'm a nigger, nigger sharecropper from down in Arkansas." All that the waitress could do was turn her head and not say anything. She went ahead and served her.
By the beginning of the war years, the mass base that the union had so successfully built earlier had begun to fade away. J. R. Butler left in 1942 to become a machinist. Mitchell and the vice president, George Stith were able to arrange labor exchange programs to provide STFU members with higher paying jobs, usually in food processing canneries.
MITCHELL: We broke away from the Cannery and Agricultural Union of the AFL-CIO, and then we resumed the name Southern Tenant Farmers Union and kept the name and the organization through 1945 intact as it was. One of our outlets during the war time was sending workers to work in food processing and on farms out of the South. We started with the Farm Security Administration furnishing transportation. We sent 2,000 people to the West — California, Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas. We sent people with them to be kind of stewards to see that their contracts were lived up to. It wasn't really a contract. It was a government statement that they were going to be paid so much and that kind of thing. Then, after sending that group out there, we sent 500 to Florida to work in the vegetable harvest and I guess it must have been in the fall of 1942. It was right after the war had started and gotten underway. Then they passed a law, really to stop the union from sending people out of the South to work on jobs where there were labor shortages or alleged labor shortages. It required each individual who was transported by government funds to have the written consent of the county agricultural agent before he could leave his home. At the same time they authorized the first importation of Mexican-American and British West Indians to work on farms.
It was the same damn people that are doing everything: the damn big plantation owners, the power structure. We called it the system; you guys call it the power structure. It is all the same. See, we had made an inroad with the whites and the blacks here. We had done something that none of these agrarian movements had really done. They had all floundered on this damn race thing; but we didn't. We didn't flounder on it. We held our principles.
STITH: The union sent me into the Gould area. They had a lot of locals in here, and they had formed what was known as an area local. Mrs. Dilworth was the secretary of it. Actually headquarters was in her house, but Pine Bluff was where we finally wound up with an office. But they wanted me in this area to help out. It was heavily populated with sharecroppers and tenants and they thought that maybe, with my experience, I could come down here and help out. It was at the time that the union membership had begun to dwindle because the members were finding other places to go. The union would pay me according to my report, whatever time I put in they would pay me expenses. As the vice-president of the union you were called on to do many different jobs, to go to many different places, even though you may not be a full time employee. During the war, the Manpower Commission asked the American Federation of Labor if they could supply them with farm labor to work in the cannery food division and we was it.
The first time I shipped labor from Cotton Plant we couldn't get busses. So we decided that we would get a truck to take them over to Memphis, and from there arrangements were made for a train. The second load I shipped, we had three trucks left Cotton Plant going into Memphis, and the State Employment Security Division had these trucks stopped in Forrest City and they put the truck drivers in jail. As the vice president, I had to see that it was arranged. We didn't have local telephones so I had to go all the way to Brinkley to get to a public telephone to call in to Memphis and tell them what had happened. The people caught rides into Memphis; some walked, however they could get there.
DILWORTH: I took people out to New Jersey, out to California, to Washington, D.C., and even to Atlanta to work in the canneries. Getting people together was easy. I just notified them and talked at different churches. Asked how many wanted to go and I'd get the names. I carried 27 people on one ticket to California. We had the big buttons, with this hoe and plow and a boll of cotton on it, and I'd tell them, don't pull it off, just keep it around your neck, because that's your pass. We left here going through Oklahoma and down through Texas and they got laid up on a road there. And we stayed there a whole night till our train came along. I had already notified them that we was on the way. See, they had barracks with stoves and lights, beds and everything. We got there about three o'clock in the morning. They met us and I told them we had a lot of kids and the children were crying for milk. Them white men was running around just having a fit. I stayed two weeks in California, but at that time I had been taking a crew once a week.
The companies paid for your trip out. When you worked you had to pay the money back. That's the way it went. Most of the people I transported stayed. They was making good and that's why they just didn't want to come back. I didn't take the young people out. Those that went away and had jobs had their families with them and they stayed out there.
One day them white fellows came in the office when we was sending labor from Pine Bluff. They called theyself wanting to do something but they didn't do nothing. I don't know who they were, some kinda law. They come in and ask me, "Girl, you know what you doing? Don't you know it's against the law to move people from one area and send them off?" I said, "If my area don't produce nothing, let 'em go." That's just the way I talked to them. And they didn't do nothing to us.
WILLIAMS: I sent four of my children off with Mrs. Dilworth to New Jersey to work. First, I sent my son, John Williams, Jr. He went in 1944 and every summer thereafter for four years. He worked in a cannery and cooked tomato paste. He was 19 and was going to school at Durmont Baptist College. Out of their weekly earnings, they had to pay for their groceries and reimburse the money for the ticket that was given.
The next summer in 1945 I sent my oldest two daughters, Ruby and Sadie. They were 19 and 20. You had to be 18 or 19 to go. Altogether the three of them went. The girls wasn't going to college or nothing, but I just sent them on up there. They was working with me on the farm. But now when time come to go, well, I'd just take them out of there and let them go. I wanted to let them learn how to do something excusing chopping and picking cotton. They earned enough to do 'em a little.
STITH: Unfortunately, most of the people coming along now don't know anything about the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. All the things that the union fought for, that the people on the farms have been able to get like social security and minimum wage, they just see that the government just give them that. And when you tell them this is something that we fought for for years, that we went to Congress hoboing our way or going in trucks or busses or cars, they don't believe it.
BUTLER: Most of the unions have gotten to where they're not rank and file anyway. Even the industrial unions are controlled by officials that are elected once every two years or once every four years or sometimes maybe not that often. Back in the earlier days, when people thought about joining the union, it was something like joining a church, getting together to work together for the things they wanted. It was never a mass movement, you know, but it was big enough and so much out of the ordinary that it drew the attention of the world, and so in that way I think we did a lot of good. There were probably things that we could have done if we had known more about what to do, but we were just novices, we just had to play it by ear as we went, and that was all we could do.
FOOTNOTES FOR STFU
1. "Brozeen" is spelled phonetically; we know of no written form.
2. Deputy Paul D. Peacher had been responsible for breaking up a union meeting in Earle, Arkansas in January of 1936 where two men had been shot in the back and another beaten senseless. In June of that same year, Dr. Sherwood Eddy visited Peacher's prison farm and talked to thirteen black prisoners who all said they had been arrested for vagrancy, even though some of them were property owners and others had lived in the area for a number of years. Peacher was eventually indicted by a federal grand jury, convicted, and fined $3500.
3. The issue of whether to remain affiliated with UCAPAWA became a major point of contention in the union in 1938-39. When the decision was finally made to leave, three of the union's best known black leaders, E. B. McKinney, Owen Whitfield, and Leon Turner, along with the Rev. Claude Williams chose to remain with the CIO.
NOTES FOR THE STFU
The most complete account of the STFU can be found in Donald Grubbs' Cry From the Cotton, University of North Carolina Press, 1971. Grubbs deals in depth with the impact of the Depression on cotton tenancy, and the New Deal's half hearted attacks on rural poverty. He traces the history of the union from its early days as an outgrowth of the Socialist Party through its demoralizing days in the UCAPAWA. Contains an extensive and useful bibliography.
For further reading, see the following:
Will Alexander, Edwin Embree, and Charles Johnson, The Collapse of Cotton Tenancy. University of North Carolina Press, 1935.
Jerold S. Auerbach, Southern Tenant Farmers: Socialist Critics of the New Deal. Labor History, Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter, 1966. (Also reprinted in the Bobbs-Merrill reprint series in black studies.)
Howard Kester, Revolt Among the Sharecroppers. Covici-Friede, 1936. This book was written while Kester was working actively with the union.
Mark Naison, The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and the CIO. Originally published in Radical America, Vol. 2, No. 5, Sept.-Oct., 1968, now available from the New England Free Press, 791 Tremont Street, Boston, Mass. A valuable and analytical account of the union's short lived affiliation with the CIO/UCAPAWA . See also recent article by Naison in The Journal of Ethnic Studies, Black Agrarian Radicalism in the Great Depression: The Threads of a Lost Tradition, Vol. 1, No. 3, Fall, 1973.
The papers of the Southern Tenant Farmers' union are housed at the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and are also available from the Microfilming Corporation of America. For a complete listing of southern libraries that have purchased the papers on microfilm write to H. L. Mitchell, P. O. Box 2617, Montgomery, Alabama, 36105.*
Additional oral interviews with members of the union have been conducted by Kate Born of the Department of History, Memphis State University, and will soon be available through the Memphis State Library.
*Editor's note: H.L. Mitchell died in 1989.
Southern Exposure is a journal that was produced by the Institute for Southern Studies, publisher of Facing South, from 1973 until 2011. It covered a broad range of political and cultural issues in the region, with a special emphasis on investigative journalism and oral history.