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B.J. Widick

These Sharecroppers Meet to Break
the Bonds of Slavery

(June 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 11, 24 June 1940, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

POPULAR BLUFFS, Mo. – Standing on the rocky mounds ninety acres of land in this southeastern section of Missouri is the fortress and symbol of the Negro and white sharecroppers – “Sharecroppers camp.”

It was the gathering place a week ago Sunday of the first annual convention of the CIO sharecroppers union, representing some 5,000 sharecroppers. In its story is the whole history of these people.

Brother West took us around the camp. Its shacks made of logs or wood and mud plaster, were the homes of the 80 odd families who live there. Counting the children, this meant over 450 people seeking to exist on the “fruits” of this land.

Not Much – “But Ours”

One glance at the shacks told of the privations endured in winter, the bitter, cold, windy winter of this area. Looking over the potato patches and the brown dry soil, still cluttered with tree stumps, we could see the results of one year’s hard toil by a penniless, poverty-stricken and homeless people. “We didn’t have nothing to start with, we didn’t eat very often, but we built this place.”

“It ain’t much, but its ours ...” The fierce pride of ownership, of a little freedom could be felt in each word. After the famed siege on the Missouri highways in mid-Winter of 1939, the Negro sharecroppers and tenants, driven like beasts from their shelters, forced enough of a hearing on their plight to obtain some aid.

A group of St. Louis liberals, headed by Josephine Johnson, the novelist, raised funds and obtained the 93 acres for them. This gave them the opportunity to carry on a ceaseless struggle against the plantation owners.

The planters tried many tricks to crush the spirit of these people, most of them Negroes, with a scattering of white folks.

The planters tried to claim the spring which furnished drinking water. They spread rumors and sought to create dissent among the sharecroppers. They discriminated against anyone from the camp when it came to jobs. Only if an owner was far behind schedule would he call for a couple of hired hands from the camp. Wages for 12 hours are less than one hour’s pay for a rubber-worker. Seventy-five cents for full days work are not uncommon.

These starving people, working hard to raise a crop, were denied relief, kept off WPA jobs. Pressure brought some surplus commodities. Slowly but surely, the camp was built a thousand heart-aches to every foot of ground.

Nearby is a river, fine for fishing, with black bass teeming in its waters. Food for the hungry. But the sharecroppers were denied the right to fish. “Anything to starve us, to drive us off our land,” our guide told us. Someone raised a dollar, the hard way, scraping together pennies and nickels. He bought a hunting and fishing license. Perhaps he could bring some food.

He was arrested. The Law kept him in jail eight days and then released him with a warning never to be caught again near the river. Even today, while the planters fish for fun, the sharecroppers are kept away. (This is not a story of the European war refugees. Everyone knows it. This is the story of American refugees from American “democracy.”)

No Big-Shots Here

While we walked around the camp we could hear the thousand delegates and visitors singing their inspiring song of freedom – rich, deep voices, singing as only the Negroes can sing. It was a song of faith and hope and struggle. Of dauntless courage.

This was not an ordinary CIO convention – in a big hotel with six dollars a day expenses for each delegate. John L. Lewis wasn’t there, nor Phillip Murray nor Sidney Hillman. It was held under an open community hall, its benches crowded and the overflow standing all day in the hot sun with the brown dust sweeping through. Outside of a few white speakers like Martin Lechner of St. Louis, or representatives from the American Youth Congress, the people themselves spoke.

A big section of the delegates from Mississippi county didn’t even arrive. The union is strong there. The folks started out in truck loads at day-break to get to the convention. But the Law stopped them at the county line. Refused to allow them to pass. “It’s against the law to carry people in trucks on the highway,” was the excuse.

At another highway, Thad Snow, a liberal plantation owner, forced the county officers to allow some trucks to pass.

(Stuka dive-bombers didn’t block, the transportation. It was the Law. In Democratic America.)

Whitfteld Speaks

Chairman and leader, of this convention was Rev. Owen Whitfield, the courageous Negro Baptist minister who lost his home, who has been hounded and persecuted and sought at night by vigilantes. His devotion and loyalty to these people is returned by them.

When he reported on the struggle of the past years, his points seconded by loud “Amens” and “That’s Right,” we felt like crawling in a hole to hide our white skin.

Lately, Whitfield has been influenced somewhat by the Stalinists. He spoke of fighting a war here, not abroad. He quoted the Bible and he told of the need for a modern Moses. But his speech was the essence of revolt against oppression.

He warned against “prejudiced Negroes as well as prejudiced whites.” When he told of the Negro boy driven insane by a beating at the hands of the Law, and the boy’s mother shouted “That’s Right”. We were listening to another example in the 200 years history of oppression of the Negro people at the hands of the whites. And this deeply rooted mistrust was not ever going to be erased by speeches or articles. Only by Common action.

Perhaps his sharpest comments were reserved for the Ministers of his own race who refused to fight with and for the sharecroppers, lie told of writing to the Baptist council asking them to raise $5 per church in America to aid the sharecroppers.

“We’ll pay it back double in two years.” But they sent no reply.

Whitfield knows the real role of the Negro in American history. He showed how “white history books” distorted it. Washington crossed the Delaware to win American freedom, but no one tells of the 5,000 Negro troops With him, of the 400,000 Negro troops in the first world war. Of the building of America through Negro and white workers.

“You clear the lands, you till the Soil, and then they say, big boy move on.”

“You fought in the Civil War to break feudal slavery, and now they’ve made you economic slaves, no better off.”

“You fought in a war for democracy, and then they tore the uniforms off your back and said, ‘Get back, in your place. Nigger.’”

“Never again.” Whitfield concluded. And these people mean business. They have learned that they lived, and sweated and died for nothing in the past. They are willing to die for something now.

Land to work and live on. To live like men with political rights and security. To educate their children. To break the bonds of slavery, 1940 style.

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