When Black Sharecroppers in the South Rose Up

Nan Elizabeth Woodruff

In the Jim Crow South, the planter class’s greatest fear was that black sharecroppers and white tenant farmers would rise up against their oppressors. In the 1930s, Socialist and Communist organizers tried to make that a reality.

Black and white STFU members including Myrtle Lawrence and Ben Lawrence listen to Norman Thomas speak outside Parkin, Arkansas, on September 12, 1937. Louise Boyle / Kheel Center

Interview by
Arvind Dilawar

On September 30, 1919, members of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America (PFHUA) met with an accountant outside of Elaine, Arkansas. In the heart of the Mississippi Delta, which stretches from the southeast corner of Missouri down to the Gulf of Mexico along the Mississippi River, the union members — mostly black sharecroppers — had been laboring under white planters who refused to pay them for their portion of the largest cotton crop in the region’s history. The accountant they met was the son of a lawyer, who would be taking their case to court. Or so they thought.

After just forty minutes, the meeting between PFHUA and the accountant was broken up by a heavily armed white posse. Simultaneously, white assailants fired upon another meeting of union members at a nearby church. When PFHUA returned fire, killing one of their attackers, word quickly spread that a planned “insurrection” by the black sharecroppers was underway. Over the next week, white planters, local sheriffs, vigilantes, the American Legion, and active-duty Army troops tore through Elaine and the surrounding areas, indiscriminately torturing, killing, and desecrating the bodies of black residents. When the violence finally receded, up to 856 black people lay dead in what would come to be known as the Elaine Massacre. Needless to say, the sharecroppers’ suit against the planters did not materialize.

Nevertheless, unwilling to remain under the heel of planter tyranny and white supremacy, black sharecroppers continued organizing. Beginning in 1934, they joined the Socialist Party–backed Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) by the tens of thousands, along with the Communist-led Alabama Sharecroppers Union. Over the next decade, the STFU enabled mostly black sharecroppers and white tenant farmers to challenge their exploitation, and the Communists proved themselves an unparalleled force against Jim Crow tyranny.

Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar spoke with Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, author of American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta, about how black sharecroppers fought back against their oppression, and how their struggle informed the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Arvind Dilawar

The title of your book, American Congo, draws an analogy between the Mississippi Delta of the early twentieth century and the Belgian Congo. How were the two similar?

Nan Elizabeth Woodruff

The Mississippi Delta mirrored the Congo in its level of brutality and oppression of black people. King Leopold justified Belgian imperialism in the Congo under the guise of progressive uplift. The reality was horrific, as Leopold’s minions murdered, raped, cut off the heads and hands of the Congolese, and worked them to death.

America had its Congo in the Mississippi Delta, where newly formed large-scale capitalist plantations emerged at the turn of the twentieth century that rested on the harsh sharecropping system.

White supremacy underwrote the plantation economy. It was a form of domination that stripped African Americans of their citizenship and kept them in economic bondage. Black people were murdered and raped with impunity. Their land and other forms of property were taken at will; they had no rights; they were not allowed to testify in court or serve on juries; they were lynched, with few ever held accountable; they were disappeared, never to be heard from again.

The Delta plantation economy mirrored colonial economies in that it was based on extractive industries worked by various forms of unfree labor. White supremacy, and its global expression of imperialism, denied black people’s humanity. Some of the meanest corners of the “heart of darkness” were found in the Mississippi Delta in the first half of the twentieth century. Just as King Leopold’s Congo was held to be the most extreme manifestation of imperialism, so was the Mississippi Delta viewed as the worst example of racism and violence in the United States.

Arvind Dilawar

The Socialist Party–backed Southern Tenant Farmers Union became perhaps the most significant force supporting black sharecroppers against white plantation owners in the Delta. Who made up the union? What tactics did they use to organize and fight?

Nan Elizabeth Woodruff

The STFU was an interracial union that included both sharecroppers and tenant farmers. The distinction mattered, for sharecropping was generally confined to black people. It was a form of wage labor whereby the workers were paid in the form of a share of the crop and thus kept in constant debt. Tenant farmers were renters who paid their rent in the form of crop or cash, thus allowing for some degree of nominal independence. Often, tenants were former landowners who had lost their land. In the Delta, these distinctions were often collapsed, but the racial distinctions did matter.

The union was formed in response to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which introduced controlled production. Landowners received federal parity payments for reducing one-third of their cotton production. In the South, planters used the system to displace laborers and collect the payments. The workers lost their homes and access to food they had been forced to buy at the plantation commissaries. Many lived on the side of highways in tent colonies. Some were hired as day laborers to chop or pick cotton. The union sought to publicize the plight of the displaced and the limits of the AAA. They also staged strikes for higher wages on the plantations. These were met by extreme violence.

The STFU was remarkable for its attempt at interracial organizing, the planters’ worst nightmare. Their chances of success were not great from the beginning due to the violence and the political power of the plantation class. Their success was further restricted by the dramatic shifts occurring in agricultural production that the Depression, federal policies, and World War II accelerated. Controlled cotton production and mechanization became the future of large-scale agriculture, and this spelled displacement for millions of black and white families.

Interracial unionism faced tensions within as well. The union was run by two white Socialists. It fell apart when the black members voted to affiliate with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)–affiliated union of agricultural workers, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA).

The STFU was a Socialist Party–backed union, and the Socialist Party of America (SPA) was overwhelmingly a white party that was strong in the Southwest, where white farmers were being displaced on a grand scale and turned into tenant farmers. You might say it grew in the Southwest out of the failure of the Populist movement to forge an interracial movement in the 1890s.

The Communists were much more effective at interracial organizing. They had formed the Alabama Sharecroppers Union in Alabama at the same time among black sharecroppers. When the chance to affiliate with the UCAPAWA came, black sharecroppers chose that over the SPA.

The CPUSA (Communist Party USA) successfully wove race and class together in a way that the SPA did not.

Arvind Dilawar

Could you draw out the connection between the CIO and CPUSA?

Nan Elizabeth Woodruff

The Communists were superior organizers, and they succeeded in organizing across interracial lines. They dominated numerous locals in several unions, and when the CIO was created in 1935 to bring together skilled and unskilled unions, the Communists played a role in its formation. After World War II and the rise of the Cold War and McCarthyism, the Communists were purged from the unions and blacklisted. The end result was a far more conservative CIO and labor movement.

The consequences for the labor and civil rights movement were crucial, for in the 1930s, the Southern civil rights movement was coming through the labor movement and, on some level, the Communists’ organizations. McCarthyism and the Red Scare, with its blacklisting, shifted the balance, and the focus for the movement shifted to the Southern black churches.

Churches had played a role in the STFU and earlier organizing attempts, as they were spaces where black and white people might gather. However, the shift to the churches in the 1950s had different ramifications, for in the 1930s and 1940s, the civil rights movement had grown through the working-class movement. Churches were quite different entities.

Immediately following World War II, the CIO launched Operation Dixie to organize black and white southern workers. It was defeated (some American Federation of Labor locals had KKK members), and with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, it became harder to organize. One can argue that the failure of Operation Dixie sealed the fate for the emergence of a progressive South based on interracial unions.

Arvind Dilawar

Literacy, especially on the part of black women, and guns, in the hands of many black people, were pivotal to sharecroppers’ struggles. How were both essential?

Nan Elizabeth Woodruff

Literacy was crucial because the lack of it meant sharecroppers could never keep track of their contracts and plantation commissary debts. Women tended to be more literate among black people and thus were crucial to the success of their families. I have interviewed former sharecropper women in the Delta who spoke of seeing the settlement account their husbands had brought home and realizing how they had been cheated, while the husbands knew they had been treated unfairly, yet because they could not read, they were unable to follow the specifics of the theft.

Many black men and women carried guns or had them in their possession. I found numerous accounts of men and women shooting plantation owners and managers who had forcibly entered their homes, in some cases to assault the women and girls — or when an argument over an end-of-year settlement erupted into violence and the sharecropper shot and sometimes killed the owner.

Regardless of whether the white person lived or died, the sharecropper had to flee the area or be killed. Sometimes the family might never hear from the father or son again. I have always remembered the story of the great freedom fighter Fannie Lou Hamer, who carried her grandmother’s pistol in a lunch bucket she took to the fields when picking cotton. I have heard so many similar stories of guns handed down through generations in my own interviews with black participants in the freedom movement.

Arvind Dilawar

How did the sharecroppers’ struggle influence the later civil rights movement?

Nan Elizabeth Woodruff

All of these interracial efforts affected future movements. Survivors of the 1919 Elaine Massacre helped to form the STFU, and some of the black men and women in the STFU became part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Arkansas. Social movements never come out of nowhere — they are part of the longer struggles for freedom and are built on both the successes and failures of the past.

Interracial unionism and organizing was the greatest fear of white elites after emancipation for obvious reasons, and so any efforts of this sort were met with utmost force and violence. SNCC and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were interracial, and their organizers, too, knew that going into the South could prove deadly. But they also knew that, if they were successful, it would shift the balance of power.