Tuesday, July 14, 2015
The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in the Arkansas Delta memorializes when the poorest of black and white Southerners stood together to "Roll The Union On"
(The Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, Ark.)
TYRONZA, Ark. – The black and white sharecroppers of the Arkansas Delta in the 1930s were the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. They worked from sunup to sundown, buried in debt, a Southern peasantry every bit as bound to landowners as their medieval counterparts in Europe centuries before.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt had them in mind when he declared the South “the nation’s number one economic problem,” yet the federal government botched its attempt to help them, the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, allowing landowners not only to grab federal dollars intended for the peasants but even to evict them from their shacks and shotgun houses.
That’s when the lowest of the low finally stood in protest.
It was in 1934 when 11 white and seven black sharecroppers and tenant farmers gathered in what was known as “Red Square” in this tiny town in the heart of the Arkansas Delta, a combination dry cleaners run by H.L. Mitchell and gas station operated by local marshal Clay East. In that humble building, they established the headquarters of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU).
Inspired by the writings of Upton Sinclair and the speeches of Norman Thomas, Mitchell and East were both self-proclaimed socialists. Like many in the 1930s, they were disgusted with an unhinged capitalism that had plunged the nation into economic chaos and left their neighbors near starvation while plantation owners and their political cronies jealously guarded the status quo.
This rare moment in Southern history where black and white came together to stand for social justice against overwhelming odds is preserved in what must be the most humble of historic places, the nine-year-old, state and federally funded Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, located in the same building where Mitchell and East led the STFU.
Some have called the STFU a predecessor to the Civil Rights Movement, Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers, and today’s Farm Labor Organizing Committee in Ohio and North Carolina and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, each a shining light to the powerless of this nation.
“It took a lot of courage,” says Linda Hinton, director of the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, about the defiance of Southern tradition that the STFU represented. “One of the original members had been a Klansman, but whenever he started looking around and seeing how he was being treated, and saw the blacks were being treated the same way, he joined the union.”
Courage indeed. Earlier efforts by sharecroppers and tenant farmers to assert their rights had met with brutal suppression. An Arkansas Delta picker strike in 1891 ended with nine of the strikers captured by masked vigilantes and summarily hung.
What is probably the worst race massacre in U.S. history took place in nearby Elaine, Ark., in 1919 when black sharecroppers met in a church to organize for better wages. A band of armed white men launched a terror campaign against them that led to more than 100 deaths.
Members of the STFU, too, faced beatings, kidnappings, jail time, and constant threats from gun-toting night riders. However, a strike in 1935 led to several landowners agreeing to better wages. By 1937 the union claimed tens of thousands of members in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Oklahoma.
(To the right, an STFU call-to-strike poster on display at the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum)
“Meetings followed the pattern of religious revivals, with fiery sermons, passionate exhortations, and emotional hymns,” writes University of Mississippi historian Elizabeth Payne in her essay on STFU organizer Myrtle Lawrence.
Great labor songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved” and the classic “Roll The Union On”, written by STFU sharecropper-poet John L. Handcox, came out of the movement.
Takeover attempts by Communist-led unions, internal divisions and other pressures eventually drained the STFU of its original fire, and by the 1940s it was a mere shell of itself.
Decades later, the history remains controversial, museum director Hinton says. “When I started working here, I spoke to a couple of elderly ladies at the church and asked them about it, they whispered, `yes, we do know about it.’ They felt they had to whisper.”
The museum, which gets about 4,000 visitors a year, is part of a four-site “Southern Heritage” tour sponsored by Arkansas State University that also includes the barn studio in Piggott where Ernest Hemingway worked on the novel A Farewell to Arms, Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, and Dyess Colony, the farm cooperative whose most famous resident was country music star Johnny Cash.
The STFU failed to realize its dream of equality and fairness in the Delta. The region remains poor and divided, its biggest change seen in the corn and soybean crops quickly replacing King Cotton. Yet a closing sentence in a 1937 STFU declaration of rights speaks to the hope that the STFU continues to inspire.
“To the disinherited belongs the future.”