by Stuart Elliott
In the summer of 1934, a remarkable interracial union of tenant farmers was founded. Mean Things Happening, a 1993 PBS documentary on the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (SFTU) and depression-era organizing of the steel industry, has been much praised and is presented here.
Historian Mark Naison gives a nice summary of the STFU in the Encyclopedia of the American Left
In the summer of 1934, a remarkable interracial protest movement arose among the sharecroppers and tenant farmers of eastern Arkansas—the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU). Battered by the Depression and by New Deal crop reduction programs that led to massive evictions from the land, black and white sharecroppers joined together to try to gain economic security from a collapsing plantation system. Aided by local and national leaders of the Socialist Party, they tried to lobby the federal government to win a share of crop reduction payments and to resist planter efforts to drive them from the land. The union, often led by black and white fundamentalist ministers, spread quickly throughout the region. In 1935 it organized a cotton choppers’ strike to raise wages for day laborers; it sent members to lobby in Washington, and it maintained interracial solidarity in the face of fierce planter repression. By 1936, the organization claimed more than twenty-five thousand members in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas, and had won national recognition for dramatizing the plight of sharecroppers under the New Deal.
However, external and internal pressures prevented the union from consolidating its gains. First of all, planter terror—murders, beatings, arrests— made it impossible for the union to maintain headquarters “in the field.” After 1936, its organizers had to operate from the relative safety of Memphis. Second, Socialist-Communist conflict frayed the union’s solidarity….the President of the [CIO’s agricultural union]…was a Communist Professor, Donald Henderson, who regarded the SFTU as a utopian agrarian movement rather than a legitimate union…..
For a brief moment, the SFTU had given voice to the poorest of the South’s people, demonstrating that blacks and white could be united around common goals, even in the heartland of Jim Crow.
Orville Vernon Burton discussed H. L. Mitchell, co-founder of the SFTU, in the Encyclopedia of the American Left
H. L. Mitchell (1906-1989) was one of the foremost twentieth-century American socialists engaged in farm activism and multiracial organizing. Born in Halls, Tennessee, Mitchell worked at farm chores from the age of eight, and after high school graduation tried his hand at a number of jobs, from bootlegging in prohibition days to sharecropping. As an eleven-year-old newspaper boy, he had ridden a special train to Dyersburg, Tennessee, and watched whites lynch a young black man. Searching for some way to understand the world around him, Mitchell became what southerners called a “reading fool.” Converted to socialism, he in turn converted his friend. Clay East, and the two created a “Red Square” for Norman Thomas’s 1932 presidential campaign in Tyronza, Arkansas, around Mitchell’s dry-cleaning shop and East’s filling station.
In 1934 the two spearheaded the interracial STFU. With Mitchell’s organizing skills and and East packing a pistol as the duly elected township constable, the union thrived. By protesting sharecropper evictions, organizing strikes, and lobbying for federal legislation to improve agricultural conditions in the South—with the support and cooperation of black and white farm families—southern radicals forcefully fought the system. Along with strikes to raise wages, their most successful effort culminated in the formation of the Delta Cooperative Farm at Rochdale, Mississippi, by tenants evicted from Arkansas plantations for joining the STFU. This project became the model for the Farm Security Administration, created as a result of growing national concern for the plight of the southern tenant farmer.
The story of a 1939 strike by black and white sharecroppers in southeastern Missouri is told in the documentary film Oh Freedom After Awhile.
Mitchell wrote several books on the SFTU, including Mean Things Happening in this Land and a
Roll the Union On: A Pictorial History of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union. Wade Rathke talks about the Southern Tenant Union museum in Tyronza, Arkansas.
Mitchell was a founding member of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, a predecesser to Democratic Socialists of America.