J.R. Johnson

The Negro Question

(6 January 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 1, 6 January 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The sharecropper was one of the particular darlings of Roosevelt’s fireside chats. He was really the forgotten man. He was at the bottom of the one-third of a nation. How has he fared under the benevolent (in words) rule of the defunct New Deal? Let us hear again from the man on the spot:

“I am afraid it is getting monotonous to write of the nauseating poverty of the cotton sharecroppers, tenants and day laborers. So much has been written about it that it seems that everyone should know all the details. Yet it has to be seen and lived to really understand to what degradation human beings have fallen under the system of landlordism and capitalist exploitation. I found one family of nine with one fork for the whole family. I leave the scene at mealtime to your imagination. For a solid week I did not once get a chance to sit down comfortably simply because the few chairs the croppers posses are generally of the cane seat variety with the seat missing.

“To understand the bitter wrath under the surface of their feelings you must realize that grievances are piling, up because of little economic advantages which croppers used to enjoy are one by one being eliminated. It used to be, for instance, that wood for cooking and heating was free. But the rapid clearing of the land has finally resulted in the cropper having to buy coal. Hunting and fishing used to be counted on to supplement their scanty fare. But fish and game laws and license requirements have stopped a practically free source of food. The landlord seems unconcerned about these things. He stops his croppers from having pigs and chickens for fear that croppers will steal his com for feed. The cropper would be quite willing to grow his own corn but that is not permitted because it would take time away from the cotton crop. The same thing goes for a vegetable garden. And so an accumulation of grievances builds up and makes the cropper eager for the message of unionism as a partial answer to his economic problems ...

“I wonder how those people survive the winter. Pneumonia is bound to get them. Tuberculosis has gotten two of them in the ’Lost Colony’ camp in the last six weeks. The tuberculosis was not contracted in ‘Lost Colony’ camp. It was contracted in their work as sharecroppers, living in houses unfit for habitation and eating food unfit for consumption.”

“No Bosses After Awhile”

Although their state has been getting worse with the general decline of the capitalist system, it is nothing new. What is new is a united attempt among the croppers to fight for something approaching human living standards. The croppers are organizing. Into two unions, the, STFU and the UCAPAWA (the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America), they are organizing. Black and white, they are organizing.

And in spite of all repressions, they are organizing. When they meet at a cropper’s cabin, there are defense guards posted up and down the road. But the morale is good, whether at a local meeting in a cabin or a district meeting. They begin ordinarily by singing Freedom, their own song, two of the many stanzas of which go as follows:

Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom,
There’ll be freedom after a while,
’Cause before I’ll be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave,
So there’ll be some freedom after a while.
Boss’ll miss me, Bossl’ll miss me,
Boss’ll miss me after a while,
’Cause before I’ll be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave,
So there’ll be no bosses after a while.

Watch January 10th

Our correspondent attended the meeting of the leaders of the southeast Missouri locals of the UCAPAWA.

“108 leaders arrived in time for the meeting. Several dozen more didn’t get there because of breakdowns in their dilapidated cars. The camp is from 60 to 140 miles from the cotton district, as a meeting in the cotton district cannot take place in our free country.

“The meeting was for the purpose of instructing leaders as to the correct steps to take in the imminent crisis. Evictees are already being notified to vacate their land by January 1st, which, with ten days’ grace, will mean January 10th. Usually the planters do not give this notice until after Christmas ... They are that kind-hearted. But this year they just can’t wait. Their greed for the government payment, in which the cropper won’t share if the landowner switches to day labor, is so strong that they won’t take a chance on a last minute ruling by the AAA which may upset their plans of getting their mitts on that government check. It is known by now that if the landowner gets the entire AAA check his labor cost for making a cotton crop is entirely absorbed by the government, so that his cotton crop costs the landowner nothing, neither effort nor money. The situation is comparable to the government meeting a factory payroll and permitting the owner of the factory to have the product …”

“This Ain’t Our Government”

“A social explosion may take place on January 10th ... There is no place for these landless, homeless people to go except their 93 acre camp near Poplar Bluff. We are looking for thousands of families to start marching towards the camp. The Chamber of Commerce of Poplar Bluff has already passed a motion refusing them access to their own land, in order to keep them out of ‘their county’.”

Croppers are not yet strong. They are in two unions instead of one. They are opposed by the united strength of reaction. But they are gaining one advantage that must eventually sweep everything before it – the realization of their own strength, the knowledge that they must fight, black and white, together. As one cropper put it:

“This ain’t our government. The sheriff ain’t our sheriff, the governor ain’t our governor, the president ain’t our president. Some day we’ll change that.”

Last updated on 16 July 2018