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David Coolidge

Chattel Slaves in All but Name ...

David Coolidge Writes from the Field on Missouri’s Sharecroppers

(27 January 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 4, 27 January 1941, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

ST. LOUIS – Southeastern Missouri is a land of cabins in the cotton; a region of poverty and misery; violence and oppression; exploitation and downright robbery. There is no constitution down here, no pretense of practicing democracy – not even the small measure of democracy that workers have in some other sections of the United States. This is an area of black and white sharecropper and tenant farmers who own nothing, not even the barest necessities of life that a worker on home relief can get in a northern city. These people have nothing but the air they breathe. Perhaps they wouldn’t have this, if there were any way for the planters to install a nickel-in-the-slot method of selling the air. If they could, these planters might be found telling a “cropper” or a tenant at the end of the year that so much had been deducted from his cash income for so many cubic yards of air breathed.

This is not an exaggeration; that’s the kind of place the cotton region of southeastern Missouri is. These conditions do not exist because the soil is poor and will not yield a living for the people. One planter told us that the cotton yield here is the largest per acre of any section of the cotton belt. Here the soil is black and rich. The land is level and lends itself to cultivation by the most modern mechanical methods. The difficulty arises through the fact that the planters own everything and the sharecroppers have nothing. A small planter, that I spent a few hours with, a “liberal,” has 1,100 acres. A nearby planter has 30,000 acres scattered over southeastern Missouri and northern Arkansas.

Worse Than Chattel

The sharecroppers live on these cotton plantations under conditions that surely must be worse than in the days of chattel slavery. They live in shacks and hovels that are indescribable. No one could get even the faintest idea of what these cabins are like without actually seeing them. They seem to be made of anything that the croppers could lay hands on: clapboards and logs of all kinds and shapes. Two rooms: one to cook and eat in, the other to sleep in. The planters refuse to keep holes in the roof patched. When it rains the beds must be moved so that the family can keep up the illusion that they are not living out in the open.

Although there is plenty of food, the sharecroppers don’t get it. To be sure they do all the work that produces the food – just like the workers everywhere. The planters eat all the food they can hold and sell the rest. They sell the cotton that the sharecroppers have worked to raise and put the money in their pockets. I went into a corncrib bursting with thousands of bushels of corn but the croppers do not have enough meal for corn bread. The corn yield per acre here is very high and the land could feed all the people.

The average cash income for a family is about $100 to $150 a year. One cropper told me that last year he and his wife together had a cash income of $100. The other income is the tumble down cabin, sow belly, meal and a few other things of like nature. With the cash income they buy clothing, soap and other things that a human being must have to maintain life even on the lowest scale.

When I was down there the croppers and day laborers were still picking cotton on some plantations. I never knew before that cotton was picked in January. What they were picking was what is called “scrap.” This is cotton that either is not ready for picking in the regular picking season or is of an inferior grade. The pickers are supposed to get a higher rate per hundred pounds for this “scrap” but on most of the plantations they are paid a lower rate per hundred.

In one county on the Arkansas border, the croppers and day workers had another grievance. They were not only the victims of capitalist exploitation; their misery was added to by being openly and brazenly robbed by the planters. That part of the AAA payments which should go to the croppers is kept by the planters and the croppers get none of it.

The federal government went into this area with the idea of attempting some improvement in the lives of the people. A housing project was planned that would make possible a higher standard of living. One project was built with comfortable sanitary dwellings, adequate garden space for food, and acreage for raising cash crops. Provision was made for seeds, cows, horses and pigs. Here the croppers and laborers can live like human beings and have an opportunity for a measure of independence.

But this was just what the planters are opposed to. They fought against it and won out. The government compromised on another plan which provides for a house, garden plot and a commons that all are expected to use for the growing of the cash crop. Of course this commons is not adequate and the understanding is that the people who live in the project will work by the day for one or another. For this work, the croppers are paid seventy-five cents a day.

The sharecroppers object to this scheme and rightly so. They want the original plan of the government because this plan gives them enough acreage for food and a cash crop. This tends to make them independent of the planters. That is why the planters fought so hard and viciously against the original government plan.

The planters stand ready always to resort to violence to maintain their rule of misery, nakedness and hunger. Flogging is prevalent in this region; all the law is planter’s law and the “justice” is planter’s justice. The ideas expressed in the Wagner Labor Relations Act, or any other social-betterment idea, have no standing in this region.

Of course, the planters are against the sharecroppers’ union. The sharecroppers are in about the same situation as the workers in Germany. There is no democracy in the United States for them. These sharecroppers know that the place for them to fight for democracy is right on the cotton plantations where they slave and starve. That is what they are doing in their union, trying to free themselves from an oppression, starvation and misery just as bad as in Germany.

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