Home / General / This Day in Labor History: January 10, 1939

This Day in Labor History: January 10, 1939

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On January 10, 1939, tenant farmers in the Missouri Bootheel created roadside protests for the rights of tenants and for a rural New Deal, a symbol of the long-term struggles of the rural poor and the failure of the Roosevelt administration to do much for them. This was an interracial action and was coordinated with both the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, making it a rare rural-urban alliance for a better America.

Conditions in agricultural America were pretty brutal even before the Depression. The 20s were bad for farmers. And for tenant farmers, a growing number of the agricultural workforce going back to the post-Civil War years, conditions had been terrible for a long time. The rise of sharecropping was initially a sort of compromise between plantation owners who wanted to reestablish the gang labor of slavery and the freedmen who just flat out were not going to do that. It was still a terrible situation for the freed peoples, but it wasn’t slavery. However, landowners soon discovered this was a profitable way to operate. Soon tenancy expanded to include white farmers as well. This helped spur the Farmers Alliance in the late 1870s and the Populist movements of the 1890s. The New Deal did have a major agricultural plan, through the Agricultural Adjustment Act and then what could be salvaged from it after the Supreme Court overturned it. But these policies were also terrible for tenant farmers. There was a good reason for this. New Deal planners simply saw no future in small operations such as sharecropping. New Dealers were planning for a modern world. Machinery could do much of the work of the small farmer. So AAA payments served as an incentive to kick tenant farmers off the land. The human suffering involved in this was largely shrugged at by New Dealers, who believed in necessary pain to get these people to the cities and into useful factory work that would build up the nation.

Of course, the tenant farmers themselves did not see it this way. They were largely outraged. Rural America saw all sorts of organizing around these issues during the 1930s. The most prominent of these was the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, the integrated (though still mostly Black) movement of left-wing farm organizers who made connections with the nascent CIO in labor to bring a broader critique of the American economy that would build alliances between labor and farmers, the lack of which was one of the many problems with left-leaning organizing in American history.

Now, while the organizers of these movements often had a preexisting class critique of American life, including many of them being communists, the average farmer wasn’t really thinking in these terms. They were thinking in terms of outrage that their way of life was being stripped from them. Through 1938, the CIO and STFU were organizing in the Missouri Bootheel around tenant rights. This helped build the structure for protest culture. At the beginning of 1939, STFU locals, which were generally segregated but worked together, around the region decided to create a public protest movement to demand access to land. They started roadside encampments to bring public awareness to the problem. Within a few days of the original announcement of the plan on January 7, they were ready to go and started on January 10.

Most of these people were former tenant farmers who were now laborers at best and they were not happy about it. This was strictly locally controlled. The STFU was told by locals to stay out of it, at least directly. They had very specific goals–long term contracts as tenant farmers. They weren’t even demanding their own land. They just wanted to work some, not move around, and raise their families in the land they knew and loved. They wanted federal help in this, but were also strong believers in producerism. The federal help was necessary to get access to land, but otherwise, they said they were productive farmers who did not want handouts or charity from anyone. These were almost all long-term residents of the region, as government surveys discovered.

Religion was centrally important to these movements. Observers noted that they took on a revival meeting attitude. In fact, especially the Black churches were directly involved and the STFU had worked to organize the preachers too, which was not always easy given the inherent conservatism of many ministers. From January 10 to January 14, the protestors had large demonstrations and got a ton of media attention too. They had built meaningful social networks to cook food, take care of children and the sick, and other necessary parts of life.

Not surprisingly, local authorities in the Bootheel were not happy. They wanted control over the labor force and this was not that. They first attempted to cut off all outside aid to the encampments, which was a central part of the support strategy for them. New Deal agencies were staffed by locals and so they did not give aid either. Police blockaded the roads and deported STFU organizers back to Arkansas. By January 13, the state health authorities were claiming a public health emergency due to the lack of sanitary toilets, as if they cared about sanitation before these farmers were protesting. The cops tried to clear the camps. But especially the Black farmers were so motivated by their suffering and imbued by religion that they refused to cooperate, angering the authorities even more. Said Henry MacAdory, one of the farmers, the campers were “just like a tree planted by the water, and we will not be moved,” which is a line and a song that was famous in the mainline civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

On January 14, the armed vigilante groups came out. The presence of government officials did serve to convince the whites that violence would backfire. But they simply destroyed the camps. The demonstrations in the end accomplished nothing. That’s not to say that they were a bad idea. It was simply a nearly impossible situation for the farmers to win. Some of the protestors who would not give up were given the chance to build an encampment in a place no one could see them and that was under the sheriff’s control, so that fell apart quickly because what was the point. And when the local authorities learned that federal officials were considering giving the workers aid, they tore that camp down too.

The STFU and CIO, in particular its rural organizing arm the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) now stepped in to help out with relief, as did the Farm Security Administration. But the pressure from local law enforcement and land owners was so intense that it was almost impossible to sustain. UCAPAWA basically kicked out the STFU in disgust over their incompetence in the aftermath.

But still, well into the spring, rural residents and organizers demanded a rural New Deal that would help farmworkers like it had helped industrial workers. The FSA did respond with a five-point plan that was weak sauce that offered low-interest lands and grants. But this was extremely limited. There wasn’t real support it from the top, nor from local landowners. In the end, many sharecroppers did move to the cities, especially with the rise of the military-industrial complex during and after World War II, when the economics of leaving the land essentially made too much sense to stay around. However, none of this cuts against the very real struggle of people who had lived on the land for generations. They might never have had economic power, but they tried. And what’s labor history but people without economic power trying to get some, whether rural or urban, with a class consciousness or not?

This post borrowed from Jarod Roll, Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South.

This is the 421st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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