The Southern Tenant Farmers Union was founded on the principle of interracial organizing. It challenged the Southern landowning class and the Jim Crow white supremacist order, leaving a proud legacy for both the labor movement and the civil rights movement.

Men, women, and children, black and white, listen to a speaker at an outdoor Southern Tenant Farmers Union meeting, 1937. (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s 1935 and class war is brewing in Arkansas. Standing before 1,500 black and white sharecroppers, the radical Methodist minister Ward Rodgers thunders, “I can lead a mob to lynch any planter in Poinsett County.” The crowd erupts with applause.

These white and black sharecroppers who worked, lived, and died amid the vestiges of the Southern plantation system were no strangers to terror. The night before, a group of planters and deputy sheriffs had attacked an adult education class taught by Rodgers. The landowner class, the banks, the police, and an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan called the Nightriders had been engaged in a brutal crackdown on the workers of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.

Not to be outdone, the youthful and slender Harry Leland Mitchell rose to the stage. H. L. Mitchell was a union organizer and cofounder of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU for short), one of the first interracial and most influential unions in the South. In the middle of the town square, Mitchell defended the Methodist minister, saying, “Ward Rodgers is staying at my house. If any bunch of sons of bitches with their heads in pillowcases come to my house, they are going to get the hell shot out of them.”

The STFU would grow to thirty-one thousand members across the South, challenging the Southern landowning class and the Jim Crow white supremacist order, and leaving an undeniable legacy for both the labor movement and the civil rights movement.

Mitchell borrowed the title of his autobiography Mean Things Happening in This Land from a song of the same name written by the poet, singer, and STFU member John Handcox, whose poetry is found throughout the book. Mean Things Happening in This Land is not just a recollection of fights won and lost, but a lively look at what democratic socialist Michael Harrington called the “grandeur of ordinary people.” The cinematic bravery of poor folks, black and white, facing down the planters and Nightriders is right there next to bawdy jokes, stories of bourbon-soaked nights, and common things.

Mean Things Happening in This Land is a book about the grand sweep of history, but it’s often interrupted by everyday life. Its characters are heroic, but not in a storybook way. They were ordinary people, and they wanted only what was necessary to live a happy ordinary life. What distinguished them was their courage in fighting for it.

The STFU is a model of the connection between social and economic justice as well as the crucial role community must play in sustaining workers’ movements taking on the rich and powerful. We’d do well to study the union today, and Mitchell’s autobiography  is as good a place as any to start.

“His Drawl Was Authentic His Simplicity Was Not”

H. L. Mitchell was born in 1906 in Western Tennessee to a humble working-class family. When he was young he heard a speech by a supporter of the socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs. The speaker’s claim that “I had rather be Eugene V. Debs in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta than Woodrow Wilson in his mansion in Washington” left a lasting impression on Mitchell. He was too young to vote in the election, but it sparked a commitment to socialism. As a young man he became an avid reader, poring over the works of Karl Marx and Shakespeare. Mitchell quickly rose to importance within the socialist movement, soon becoming elected secretary of the Arkansas Socialist Party.

H. L. Mitchell used his social talents to garner sympathy for Southern workers, putting on a show to win the hearts and pocketbooks of sympathetic Northerners to the cause of the tenant farmers.

Mitchell’s self-education and his everyman charm won him many admirers. Later in life he was able to use his social talents to garner sympathy for Southern workers, putting on a show to win the hearts and pocketbooks of sympathetic Northerners to the cause of the tenant farmers. As Evelyn Munro Smith wrote, “He used his country boy mannerism to enlist and disarm others, whether consciously or unconsciously,” adding that while “his drawl was authentic his simplicity was not.”

By the 1930s Mitchell found himself living in eastern Arkansas, running a small laundry and organizing with the Arkansas Socialist Party. During a meeting with Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party leader told Mitchell and his longtime friend Clay East that while their activities in the Socialist Party were appreciated, what was truly needed was an organization of the sharecroppers in the region.

Life of a Tenant Farmer

Life for sharecroppers was made up of long days, low pay, and lots of debt. After a meager breakfast, work started under the supervision of the plantations’ “riding boss.” In eastern Arkansas, the riding boss was often a deputy sheriff who, as H.L. Mitchell put it, “replaced the slave driver of the pre–Civil War days.”

This system was ruled jointly by debt and the gun.

At the beginning of the season, workers would furnish themselves with food and provisions for the growing season, at inflated prices and on credit, often paying 40 percent interest over the year. Extra work could be found, and this was paid in credit to the company store.

In the summer, when the planting was done, it was the time for big revivals. Traveling “hellfire” preachers would set up segregated events for black and white folks. The landowners would pay “the preachers something extra to conduct the big meeting, so that field hands could hear their troubles blamed upon their sinful ways, rather than on the economic conditions under which they lived.”

At the end of the season, the plantation bosses would tally the cotton grown, and count that against the workers’ debt. They were often in the red. If they tried to flee they would be tracked down by the armed riding bosses, and brought back to the plantation. Even if they were able to leave unrestrained, there was little work in the towns to be found. Such was life in Arkansas and across the South.

Power in a Union

For a long time, this system weathered the booms and busts of Southern agriculture. But the Great Depression and the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) changed everything. The AAA was a government plan to bring higher prices back to agriculture — it had the landowning class in mind, not Southern sharecroppers. The government paid landowners to tear up one-third of their crops. The money was paid directly to the landowner, and though there were provisions calling for the plantation owners to distribute a portion of the money to sharecroppers, few of them did. Nearly a million sharecroppers were evicted from their homes.

The situation was dire, and there was no hope in waiting for help from up on high. In July of 1934 eighteen men, eleven white and seven black men, created the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, with interracial organizing adopted as a key plank.

The situation was dire, and there was no hope in waiting for help from up on high. In July of 1934 eighteen men, eleven white and seven black men, created the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, with interracial organizing adopted as a key plank. Haunting this meeting was the memory of the Elaine Massacre, which occurred just fifteen years prior, where soldiers and white vigilantes killed two hundred black people for organizing.

Toward the end of 1934, the STFU had nearly a thousand members, and it was not long before it too would face violence. When two organizers, Ward H. Rodgers and black minister C. H. Smith, went to hold a meeting in a church in Gilmore, Arkansas, a group of riding bosses showed up and broke up the meeting. Rodgers was able to escape with the help of a friend, but Smith was beaten and brought to jail.

Despite the union’s plea for assistance, the American Civil Liberties Union proved unwilling to provide legal assistance. So the union devised a plan. With the help of the lawyer C. T. Carpenter, about twenty of the white STFU members showed up to the black preacher’s hearing, armed with canes in case of attack. Their show of solidarity worked, and Smith was released into the care of the union.

The union’s commitment to interracial organizing went from theory to practice that day, and holdouts in the black community who doubted the commitment of the STFU joined en masse. As Mitchell wrote, “Black and white unity had carried the day. There was never any question that the union members would come to the aid of their brothers, black or white, in their time of need.”

The STFU on the March

In the fall of 1935, the planters announced they’d be lowering the wages of cotton pickers from 60 cents a ton of cotton to just 40 cents. The union fought back. STFU members worked throughout the planting season, but once it was time to pick they went on strike.

Mitchell and other organizers distributed leaflets throughout Arkansas that said, “Demand $1.00 per 100 lbs of picking cotton.” Barn doors and telephone poles were soon covered with these leaflets. When asked by the bosses where these came from, sharecroppers responded, “That feller Mitchell came over last night, and dropped them from a plane.” In fact, they were distributed from Memphis by car, but that detail shouldn’t ruin a good image.

The sharecroppers held out, and as the cotton crop was threatened, the planters gave in. Most workers saw an increase to 75 cents a ton, and those who held out longest ended up getting the full dollar. This success helped the union to expand from Arkansas into Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas.

The sharecroppers held out, and as the cotton crop was threatened, the planters gave in.

In addition to fighting for higher wages at home, the STFU had to fight in Washington to make sure that New Deal benefits were getting paid out to sharecroppers. Mitchell and the STFU engaged in a pressure campaign on the Roosevelt administration, with then secretary of agriculture Henry Wallace and his allies often cast as the villain.

When a Department of Agriculture representative was asked by an ally of the STFU why the tenant farmers were never included with the rest of the organizations of the agriculture industry, he was told, “You wouldn’t tell us we had to put a chicken on the poultry board would you?” The STFU was able to play this missive masterfully, and used the threat of public outcry to get the Roosevelt administration to act on the needs of the STFU more urgently.

The success of the STFU brought people from all over to help the union, most of them with good intentions: people like Lucien Koch, director of Commonwealth College, who along with others escaped a near lynching while organizing on the union’s behalf.

Mitchell’s and the STFU’s relationship with the socialist Commonwealth College started strong, with members of the STFU even joining the college. But eventually infighting began to threaten those relationships, and even the union itself. In time Commonwealth College grew more sympathetic to the Communist Party, which had its own designs on the STFU and was hostile to Mitchell’s leadership. Tensions got so bad that a former friend and STFU member even fired on Mitchell while he visited the college. Later people sympathetic to the Communist Party were almost successful in taking over the STFU and expelling Mitchell.

An early challenge to the STFU’s commitment to interracial organizing came from within. J. O. Green, an early member, proposed separating the union on racial lines and replacing the insignia of the STFU with a green swastika. Green and his followers were expelled from the union, and shortly afterward one of them tried to assassinate Mitchell while he was giving a speech. Luckily they were poor shots, and Mitchell, thinking the gunfire was a firecracker tossed by a planter, continued speaking undeterred.

A Legacy of Interracial Working-Class Struggle

One of the most radical ideas advocated by the early STFU was the collectivization of cotton production in Arkansas. The doctor and southern socialist William R. Amberson argued that much of the plantation system in the South was “already established in a form of collective farming.” The union, he argued, would “give to the men who worked the land the profits now being pocketed by absentee landlords.”

One of the most radical ideas advocated by the early STFU was the collectivization of cotton production in Arkansas.

This perspective angered many socialists outside of the South, who held onto the idea of farming being done by small landholders — much of the leadership in the Socialist Party held small farms like this themselves. But most importantly, this demand struck fear into the hearts of the large plantation owners, and attacks by the Nightriders intensified.

People sympathetic to this view raised money to buy land for sharecroppers in Mississippi, which they designated the Delta and Providence Cooperative Farms. It was said that “the best crop harvested on the farm was the money given by visitors from the North.” Thirty families, eighteen black and twelve white, made a life in this community — not without scandal and harassment, but with plenty of promise about what a different South could look like.

The STFU at its height would reach thirty-one thousand members. As the system of tenant farming declined due to the mechanization of agriculture, so did the STFU. But the STFU was a unique organization. It was probably the only labor union to encourage its members to leave: the STFU and Mitchell helped members relocate and find jobs across the United States.

The STFU would in time become the National Farm Labor Movement, join the American Federation of Labor, and notably expand into California. Mitchell dedicated his life to the union struggle and was involved in fights for fruit pickers in California and fishermen in Louisiana. He participated in labor delegations to Europe and Cuba, where Mitchell refused to shake hands with the dictator Fulgencio Batista.

There is a lot of sentimentality about rural America, and there is a lot of sentimentality about the South. Mitchell would have none of that. He was not nostalgic, but forward-thinking, viewing the change in the world around him as a force to be harnessed for the benefit of common people. “Eventually agriculture, America’s largest industry, must be socialized and operated for the benefit of those who work on the land and those who consume its products,” he wrote. “This I believe is the real wave of the future.”

Back in 1935, four STFU organizers were held in jail in Lepanto, Arkansas after their union meeting was raided by local police on questionable trespassing charges. The four men kept up half the town loudly singing the Internationale. It was this refusal to be intimidated and silenced that led to the STFU’s success. A group of poor tenant farmers taking on the planter class, Jim Crow, the police, the Nightriders, and even the federal government seems impossible — but through solidarity, courage, and commitment to a better future, the STFU was able to win significant gains for working people. We should take inspiration from them today.

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