Home / General / This Day in Labor History: July 11, 1934

This Day in Labor History: July 11, 1934


On July 11, 1934, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union formed when eleven white farmers and seven black farmers met in Tyronza, Arkansas to form a union of sharecroppers to fight for poor farmers’ rights. Perhaps the last gasp of the Farmers Alliance potential to reach out across racial lines and transform rural life, the STFU sought to empower sharecroppers to fight for economic rights during the dark days of the Great Depression.

The Great Depression was very hard on poor southern farmers. In fact, the Depression there had really started in the 1920s. Crop prices plummeted after the overproduction of World War I. By the time the official Great Depression began in 1929, the farm economy had been terrible for years, meaning the sharecroppers on southern land, a labor situation that had begun as something of a compromise between freed slaves and white landowners after the Civil War but had since spread to employ poor whites as well, were in entrenched, awful poverty.


Arkansas sharecroppers, 1930s

Tyronza, Arkansas was a bit odd for the rural South as there were active socialists in the area. This was not totally unknown in the South, but rare enough by 1934. Floods and droughts had ravaged the region in recent years and the national attention these received interested socialists in the area. As those ideas began spreading into the area, some locals, even merchants, showed interest in an economic system that offered an alternative to a capitalism that had not worked out for their region. Living in Tyronza was Harry Mitchell, a socialist and sharecropper. He and a gas station owner named Clay East saw that the owners were not sharing their Agricultural Adjustment Act payments with the sharecroppers and they began organizing their neighbors into what became the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.

The STFU’s main mission was fighting against the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The New Deal promoted agricultural centralization, which threw thousands of sharecroppers off their land. The Okies coming to California in the 1930s, were mostly fleeing the loss of their land rights from AAA-related centralization, not the Dust Bowl. It was the same in eastern Arkansas. AAA had two provisions that severely hurt sharecroppers. First, it had no provisions to ensure that the money landowners received to reduce farm production trickled down to sharecroppers. They were expected to share it but the owners were just keeping it all. Second, it encouraged the eviction of sharecroppers through its centralization policies, in effect if not in word. In 1934, these farmers had nowhere to go. A decade later, the jobs of World War II would give them opportunities. These did not exist in 1934. Eviction meant moving to a strange place with no likely hope of a job.


Southern Tenant Farmers Union meeting, Arkansas

The first strike began in the fall of 1935, when Mitchell led sharecroppers out for $1 per pound of cotton versus the 40 cents the owners were offering. When the owners compromised on 75 cents (and some went all the way to $1), the workers declared victory and returned to work. Of course, the response of landowners to this movement was violence, especially once the unionization campaign began. The STFU was a threatening organization to the white power structure. That it was integrated automatically made it dangerous. The first commission of STFU representatives to travel to Washington to appeal to the government included two African-Americans in its five members. At one meeting, four armed whites walked in and ordered all the blacks to leave if they did not want to be lynched. Many members were thrown off their land for membership in the organization. Beatings of organizers took place while police violence was common and threatened lynchings scared many members. STFU offices had to move from Tyronza to Memphis, where the urban environment provided more safety.

The STFU soon spread from Arkansas to Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Tennessee. It claimed 7500 members in Oklahoma, demanding land redistribution, with land owned by banks given to small farmers. In Arkansas, it forced politicians to create the Governor’s Commission on Farm Tenancy. Oklahoma passed the Landlord and Tenant Relationship Act in 1937 to encourage long-term residency on the land and promote the government as a mediator of the problems of the sharecropped farm, but conservative outrage led to its repeal in 1939.

Unlike previous farmer movements like the Populists, STFU leaders actively thought of themselves as in the same boat as industrial labor and thus sought to become a union like in eastern factories. The STFU joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ agricultural union, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) in 1937 but withdrew a year later, worried that UCAPAWA’s communist leadership was looking to take over the STFU. UCAPAWA president Donald Henderson saw the STFU as a utopian vanguard of rural revolution rather than a real union and attempted to overwhelm its leadership with paperwork so he could take it over. When the STFU leadership withdrew, it led to UCAPAWA ending its attempts to organize in the fields, focusing on the canneries, where the CIO (and the CP) was always more comfortable. The break with UCAPAWA severely hurt the STFU’s ability to function, especially as several of its leading organizers were CP and stayed with the union. Two-thirds of its locals collapsed.


Southern Tenant Farmers Union logo

As the STFU and landowners battled each other with increasing intensity, the situation finally received some attention from the government. This led to the Resettlement Administration (RA), intended to help sharecroppers find better lives. But the funding for the RA always remained small and the solutions it developed long-term rather than immediate. The government also created the Farm Security Administration (FSA), to provide low-cost loans to poor farmers who wanted to buy their own land but this was not a realistic option for the vast majority of STFU members. The 11,000 farmers around the nation it helped in 1939 was a nice start, but far too small to deal with the scale of the problem. Ultimately, the government did little to alleviate the problems AAA had spawned for sharecroppers.

The STFU declined by the early 1940s. Mitchell continued leading it, called the National Farm Labor Union after 1945, for the rest of his life, but it was only a shadow organization except for some success organizing the California cotton fields in the 40s. Because of the mechanization and industrialization of farming, most of the cotton labor force disappeared from the fields not long after World War II. The same happened for many other crops. The exception to this history of agricultural labor is Latino farmworkers, laboring in exploitative conditions not dissimilar to that of the early 20th century American South. On these farms, usually in more difficult to mechanize fruits and vegetables, the fight continues.

This is the 114th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • rea

    The union is gone now, but it made such an impression that whenever people stand together against the Forces of Privilege, the Forces of Privilege answer back, “STFU!”

    • Origami Isopod, Commisar [sic] of Ideology for the Bolsheviks

      :::golf clap:::

  • Steve Gravelle

    How can you not like an organization called STFU?

    • Like many of Eric’s labor history posts, I learned a lot reading this.

      Unfortunately, despite the fact that the history is serious and troubling, every time I look at the name of the union, I giggle.

      • liberalrob

        Seconded, this is really good stuff, Erik.

        • Steve Gravelle

          Agreed, completely. Didn’t intend to make fun of STFU. Sometimes you have to take it where you find it.

  • I noticed the iconography of the hoe and plow which seems to be a variation of the hammer and plow. The hammer and plow first appeared in Ireland and was later briefly adopted by the Red Army of the RSFSR before being replaced with the sickle and hammer. This Red Army emblem for Buddhist Kalmyks has the hammer and plow on it.


    • The hammer and sickle were pretty much obsolete in the country where the McCormick reaper was invented by the end of the 19th Century.

      In California history, it was a poem about the lot of the laborer that led to an association with the author and labor groups.

      Edwin Markham’s most famous poem, “The Man with the Hoe,” which accented laborers’ hardships, was first presented at a public poetry reading in 1898. His main inspiration was a French painting of the same name (in French, L’homme à la houe) by Jean-François Millet. Markham’s poem was published, and it became quite popular very soon. In New York, he gave many lectures to labor groups. These happened as often as his poetry readings.

      Unfortunately, the short-handled hoe wasn’t banned for use in California agriculture until 1975, thanks to then-Governor Jerry Brown.

    • Bloix

      The crossed hammer and sickle, like the hammer and plow before it, symbolizes the unity of workers and peasants.

      This symbolism – plow, hoe, and cotton boll – is much more narrow and matter of fact. There’s not much aspirational about it – it just says, this is who we are.

      • Also, it was fitting for a population that probably wasn’t very literate beyond the point of being able to sign their name on a document.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    Erik, what were the centralization policies of the AAA that drove the sharecroppers off the land?

    kind of embarrassing to admit, considering my line of work and my politics, that I never really drew a line connecting the NFO members dumping milk and, say, the UAW striking Ford until I read up on the Band’s “King Harvest”

    it makes sense the sharecroppers more readily identified with factory workers than the populists, who either did own (more accurately owe on) land- or could see owning land as a possibility

    back in the 30s if the landowner wanted to change tenants, they gave notice by Sept 1 and the tenant had to find a new place by the time the lease officially ended the following March 1. so in late Feb families would be criss-crossing the county on muddy snowy roads with their livestock and equipment and household stuff. always seemed kind of hellish to me- but my granddad’s family did that several times til they used the money they had saved up to rescue the home farm from the bank

    • Couple of things. First, AAA, like the rest of the New Deal, was big on centralization and efficiency. So it promoted emerging agribusiness over the millions of small farmers in the name of that goal. Thus farms began to get larger and larger and the poor could not compete. Second, the immediate goal of AAA to reduce production and raise farm prices in order that the stronger would survive meant that there wasn’t much for the sharecroppers to do. If the government was telling their landowners to reduce production and paying them to do that very thing, if the sharecroppers couldn’t farm, there was no reason to allow them to stay on the land and thus they were kicked off. The rapid growth in technology during these years also played a roll as more efficient harvesting machines meant that a) less labor was needed and b) those who could not afford said machines couldn’t stay on their land.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Maybe there should have been a domestic, agrarian Lend-Lease program for harvesters (etc.).

        • Brett

          That and land reform breaking up some of the larger estates, something they should have done after the Civil War.

          They probably should have tried some way to route money to farmers other than trying to jack up crop prices in the middle of a Depression, too, but I don’t blame them too much for it. This was all new policy stuff they were trying, so mistakes were inevitable.

  • DrDick

    There was a very active socialist movement in Oklahoma up into the 1930s, which had earlier elected more socialists to office than any other state. Most of these were agrarian socialists. That is where Woody Guthrie comes from.

    • Linnaeus

      I read somewhere that Texas also had an active socialist movement in the early part of the 20th century.

      • Ronan

        This is somewhat off topic (it’s a really interesting post btw) but I remember you asking Farley whether there was any book on the role non military private-sector entities play in perpetuating the Military industrial complex a while back.. so if you havent seen it “The American Warfare state” by Rebecca Thorpe might be of interest (I only got it the other day when it came up in my amazon recs, but seems to cover that aspect pretty extensively)

        • Linnaeus

          Thanks, Ronan! I’ll check it out.

  • dp

    Between dead horse pictures and American labor history, the former are much less depressing.

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    Southern Tenant Farmers Union is excusable; less excusable: South Lake Union Transit; unacceptable: Tacoma Urban Revival District.

  • TR Donoghue

    Don’t forget this tribute to the STFU,

    • Was King Harvest actually about the STFU?

      • Bloix

        No. It’s a pastiche of half-remembered history, a little Grapes of Wrath, and personal experience.


        But this is interesting:

        “Ralph Gleason’s original review also invoked James Agee’s non-fiction book on the 1930’s Deep South, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book is actually credited to James Agee and Walker Evans, with Evans’ evocative photographs of sharecropping families accompanying Agee’s innovative text. As such it was a literary departure, and for me it would be Walker Evans stunning photographs which hold the key to the song – and I imagine Elliot Landy (who did the cover pictures of The Band) would be the first to agree. He deliberately evokes Walker Evans. In the video documentary Classic Albums, they illustrate this song’s section with Walker Evans’ still pictures, and clips from the John Ford movie.”

        • TR Donoghue

          Don’t forget that Levon was from Arkansas and his parents were poor farmers.

  • JustRuss

    …it had no provisions to ensure that the money landowners received to reduce farm production trickled down to sharecroppers. They were expected to share it but the owners were just keeping it all

    Filed under Nobody Could Have Predicted, or possibly Self-Regulation is the Most Effective.

  • Bruce Vail

    This great post causes me to wonder whether the issue of tenant farmers even exists anymore in the modern economy? Are there tenant farmers to any degree in the US today?

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      as in farmers who had no land of their own and had to depend on someone else’s good will to keep farming? in my part of the upper midwest, no. most farmers ’round here, anyway, own a solid base from which to work- though their additional acres vary

      crop land is mostly rented out now on cash rather than share terms- though I’d say the vertical integration of the poultry and pork industries is a form of sharecropping

    • Anna in PDX

      Maybe the issues have morphed and now they are mostly facing the migrant labor population rather than sharecroppers/tenants?

      • Bruce Vail

        Yes, I guess it must be that mechanization and seasonal migrant workers have replaced the labor formerly performed by tenant farmers.

        One of my in-laws lives in rural North Carolina and he tells me all the farm labor in his area is done by immigrant Mexican/Central American workers, and that neither the indigenous whites nor blacks will do this work.

        • Seasonal migrant labor is more a relic of that period than a replacement for tenancy. This is more of an issue that the crops seasonal laborers harvest have not been effectively mechanized and cotton has. But the labor fundamentals of many fruit and vegetable crops aren’t all that different than they were a century ago.

  • Bruce Vail

    “Roll the Union On” is on my bookshelf. Inspiring.


  • atheist

    Thanks for that fascinating mini-history lesson Mr. Loomis! Wow, that’s extra-shitty how the UCAPAWA’s Henderson intentionally screwed the STFU. I wonder if it was an actual live case of urban contempt for rurality, an issue which normally seems imaginary.

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