J.R. Johnson

With The Sharecroppers

(September 1941)

Originally published as a series in Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 38, 22 September 1931, p. 3, Vol. 5 No. 39, 29 September 1941, p. 3 & Vol. 5 No. 40, 6 October 1941, p. 2.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 22–34.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Sharecroppers Fight Poverty & Oppression

Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 38, 22 September 1931, p. 3

Among the one-third of the nation that lives in direst poverty and greatest misery are thousands upon thousands of sharecroppers, Negro and white, in Arkansas, Missouri, and other states. Ill housed, ill-clad, ill-fed, they daily feel the severest lash of landlord and government. But, despite the most vicious exploitation, despite terror – yes, actual, real terror – and despite starkest oppression, these are men whose spirits have not been broken, who stand ready to fight with every worker against class tyranny. They hunger for bread and they hunger for freedom. And, a fighting militant as every one of them is, they mean to satisfy these hungers, however great the odds against them, however dangerous the battle. They know their enemies and they will not yield.


In 1934 the Roosevelt Administration passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act to help the farmers. It aimed at cutting down the acreage of cotton by one-third. For such is capitalism that cotton is plowed under while millions go naked. Country committees were to work out the details based on an average of five years previous. The government set an arbitrary price of 11 or 12 cents and paid the farmer the difference between that and what he got on the open market. The surplus, millions of bales, was stacked in government warehouses. (The Roosevelt Administration probably sees some way of using it now in making bandages for the war.) To enrich the soil one third of the crop was to be plowed under and soil conservation payments were made to the landlord, providing that the money advanced by the government should be shared by the farmer. On paper it was beautiful.

To prevent cheating by the landlord, the law provided that the landlord could not make any change in his condition of ownership, etc. But the landlord is himself the law. He evaded this by making a bogus sale to his brother or a friend and fixed things up to suit himself. The county committees are landowners themselves or friends of landowners. They sign statements proving that the conditions were always as they wanted them arranged, in order to pocket as much of the government’s subsidy as possible and leave the poorer farmers and “croppers” starving as before.

By 1938 the landlord calculated that if he had no tenant farmers and no sharecroppers he would not have to divide the government’s subsidy with anybody. The sharecropper’s contract is from January to December, and in January 1939 the landlords in southeast Missouri gave notice to the sharecroppers to vacate by January 10.

Twenty thousand workers were told to leave the shacks in which they lived. They had nowhere to go. Some of them scattered and sought refuge with a brother here or a cousin there or a friend somewhere else. Where a two-room shack had housed four persons, it now housed six. Families broke up. But 1,500 families, about 5,000 people, Negroes for the most part, with a few whites, camped on the St. Louis highway. They took their scanty possessions with them and announced their intention of staying there until the government took some steps on their behalf.

It is true that this was a lock-out far more than it was a strike. But the action itself was no spontaneous protest springing from a sudden emergency (though it would have been none the less significant). As far back as 1935, Braxton Taylor, a Negro sharecropper of Texas bend, finding conditions unbearable, wrote a letter to an official of the Socialist Party of Missouri asking for help. He wrote to this address because he had seen the name in The Call, the Socialist Party newspaper.

A few months before, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union had been formed in Terrel, Arkansas. After some months a unit was formed in southeast Missouri. There were no organizers, but sharecroppers and day hands heard of the new organization through a grapevine and joined.

In Arkansas there was vicious oppression of the union and long battles. There were no strikes, no collective action. The frame of the union remained, however, and late in 1938 a Mr. Whitfield, a preacher, began to go round organizing.

A local landowner wrote some articles sympathetic to the cause in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Whitfield, in an automobile, visited locals and agitated. A natural leader, fluent from his practice in the pulpit, and a man who had worked in the field as a day hand himself, he could speak from experience. Late in December he was speaking to meetings that overflowed church houses. The socialists who had helped to organize the local in the first place assisted in the organization. It was in this way that the roadside demonstration was prepared. A Post-Dispatch reporter, who heard about the coming action three days before it was due, gave the news away. But neither the reporter himself nor the landlords believed that the sharecroppers had spine enough to carry out the threat.

However, the walkout was a complete success. People flocked down and took up positions in three groups by the roadside. They were members of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, so they called on the union for assistance. Butler, the leader of the STFU replied to Whitfield: “You did it without consulting us. Go back.” The St. Louis Urban League and the CIO organized assistance and sent food. But the Stalinists in the CIO demanded as a condition that the strikers enter the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA). Whitfield agreed.

There are many aspects to what happened on the roadside and a full account must be written some day, because it is a landmark in the history of the class struggle in America. Police, armed to the teeth, came to intimidate these Negroes and make them leave the highway. The Negroes, who had their guns with them, resolutely refused. The Health Department and the Humane Society came out and investigated. The sit-down strike was called a menace to public health. The chief of police and other officials came to get the strikers to move on. The result was nil. There they were and there they were going to stay.

It was bitterly cold and they lived in tents or in the open and babies were born on the highway. At last, by a trick, the police got hold of the strikers’ guns and they were forced to go back to the Spillway. This is land lower than the river, which in the event of an overflow becomes flooded. It is damp and marshy. Here, at any rate, they were out of sight of the public.

About two weeks later they had to give in. They were shepherded away into livery stables, schools, broken down public buildings, and holes and hovels of all kinds. A very small percentage of the landlords took croppers back, and some were lured back to the cottages on the promise that they would not be charged any rent. On July 1, however, eviction notices were served on them and some went to jail The majority lived how they could, but most of them went back to work as day laborers. As such they had no interest or concern with any payments made to the landlord, according to the Agricultural Adjustment Act.

Some liberals in St. Louis formed a rehabilitation committee and about a hundred miles away they found a piece of land, infertile and rocky, and at the top of a hill. It was situated in the county of New Madrid, Miss. Three hundred and five families made the trek to it, and they began life over on July 3, 1939.

Just like pilgrims who had landed in America 300 years before, they set to work with axes and shovels, building log cabins and dirt floors. About a thousand people lived on bread and gravy for two months, bread made of flour, water, and salt. The local relief committee gave them as little as possible, hoping to throw them out. The sheriff threatened them. “You must not stay here. Tonight I will protect you, but after that I can’t.” However, they stayed at the camp, Poplar Bluff, and they built a village which they still inhabit. Of the three hundred and five families who went, five were white.

The action itself has had a tremendous moral effect on the Negroes themselves, on the landlords, and on the government. The situation in southeast Missouri can never be the same again. We shall later trace in detail what has been the result upon the workers. For the moment it will be sufficient to show what is now the attitude of the government. Late in 1939 the Negroes began to threaten to hold another roadside demonstration.

The governor of Missouri was running for senator and he feared the adverse publicity. Through Bishop Scarlett of the Episcopal Church and one or two other liberals, he got in touch with a St. Louis socialist who he knew had influence among the sharecroppers. Whitfield, president of the union, was on a Stalinist tour and was summoned back immediately.

Meanwhile, John Moore, area president, was summoned to the governor’s presence. The governor put his cards on the table. He had heard that there was another roadside demonstration projected. He could settle all difficulties. He would give every landless farmer a house and land if Moore called the demonstration off. The governor himself, the head of the state police, the head of the WPA, the head of the local relief administration, the head of the State Social Security Board, and four policemen – all in the room at the same time – met Moore and tried to beat him down. The governor promised 10,000 houses in 20 days and ten acres of land for each family. Moore, supported by his socialist friends, refused to commit the union. He could do nothing, he said, without the union. Having failed with Moore, the governor got hold of Whitfield at the Park Plaza Hotel, having paid all this expenses back from his tour, with cigars included.

Where Moore had held firm, Whitfield capitulated and agreed to call off the projected demonstration. Today the government has built 500 instead of 10,000 houses and instead of ten acres of land, each house has three-quarters of an acre allotted to it.


What Is It the Sharecropper Fights For?

Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 39, 29 September 1941, p. 3

We must get some clear idea of the type of workers who made the demonstrations, and what they have developed into.

These southeast Missouri Negroes are unique. All the statistics of the Bureau of Commerce will be useless unless we understand what type of people they are and the conditions which have shaped them.

Let us begin with one characteristic cropper. He is in the early thirties and was born in Mississippi. He went 2½ miles to school every day and left in the fourth grade. He can read. He is also familiar with automobiles and machinery. He is no pro-war monger. At 14 he came to southeast Missouri. He first worked in the cotton field plowing behind a team. That was in 1924. He got $1.25 a day, from March until April 30. How many hours a day did he work? The answer is concise: “All.”

In June the cotton chopping began. Again he got $1.25 a day. This lasted until the middle of July. There was no more work until the last week in September, when the picking started. This was piece work. Every 100 pounds, 75 cents. Some strong fellows picked 200 or even 250 pounds. The average man picked 150 pounds. The women would pick about 100 pounds. This stopped in December and there was no more work until the next March. He lived in an old shack. When it rained he couldn’t sleep, for the water came in, summer and winter. This was his life from 1923 to 1937. In 1935 he heard of the NAACP through the local preacher. He joined. There were about 100 members in his local. In 1938 he heard of the union for the first time. As soon as he heard of it he joined. Whitfield came to speak to a meeting and there were 150 present. In 1939 he took part in the demonstration, was one of the leaders. After the demonstration he went back to work. This time he and his family lived with two other families in three rooms. The pay was $1.00 a day. The landlord was using tractors, not horses. He needed labor only for chopping cotton and picking. Where one man used to do 10 acres a day, the tractor does 33.

He and his wife made a crop in 1938. They farmed 11 acres. Starting January 1 they got $12 a month for five months. The landlord furnished mule and plow and fed the livestock. In September they started to pick. The price of cotton was 10 to 10½ cents. The landlord paid him 8½ to 9 cents. He made nine bales at 500 pounds a bale. The total amount was $405. His share was therefore $202.50 minus an advance of $60 and other minor advances.

However, in December when he was paid off he got $4.55. Parity payment he got none of, because the landlord, before paying off the crop, insisted that the parity payment be turned over to him. If one were writing fiction it would be necessary to change $4.55, to make it a little more reasonable in appearance. In fact, the actual truth is worse. The cropper’s brother was making a crop of 11 acres for the same landlord. In June he got a job on the WPA at $8 a week and left the crop. The cropper took it over and made nine bales of cotton. The $4.55 he received was for both crops.

In another area one hundred miles off, it was stated that the croppers got what was due to them. The practice of stealing by the landlords varies from state to state and district to district. But there is scarcely a Negro in the area who does not know that he must work a few months of the year, all the hours of the day, for $1.25 a day (when it does not rain) or do share-cropping and be at the complete mercy of the landlord. The recent case where a landlord shot a cropper dead because he dared to argue with him is no ordinary murder. It typifies the economic relation between ruler and worker in the process of production.

This was the experience behind the demonstration. And it would be a grave mistake to underestimate it. Three generations of Negroes have suffered it and they have had enough. Today the Negroes in southeast Missouri wish neither to be day laborers nor sharecroppers. They have had their fill of both.

Even in those areas where the croppers admitted that they got their share, they do not want to be sharecroppers any more. Share or no share, the economic and social conditions are such as to create a permanent poverty, misery, and degradation which have made thousands of them ready for anything. There are about 20,000 day laborers in this part of the state and about 5,000 took part in the demonstration. Its importance is that it is the first attempt at mass action to remedy an intolerable situation.

The proportion is very high. Everything now starts from the demonstration. They think in terms of it. A careful account of it should be written, the good points emphasized and the mistakes and weaknesses pointed out. The action has given them a sense of power and a consciousness of solidarity.

Naturally with their dispersal and the passing of time, this cohesion may seem to have been dissipated. It is not so. It is there, as can be seen from conversations with any half dozen separate individuals. It forms a practical and psychological basis for the organization of the sharecroppers to take industrial and political action. The masses learn best from the examination and analysis of their own common experience.

The more farsighted of them know what the demonstration has done for them. There were actual concrete results. Just before it took place certain landlords were plotting together to change the proportion in which the crop was divided and rob the cropper some more. In the present system the cropper gets one-half of the crop. The landlord, who actually owns the land, gets one quarter and the entrepreneur, who rented from the landlord, gets the other quarter. The new scheme that was being hatched aimed at giving the landlord one-quarter of the crop. That left three quarters, which was to be divided between the entrepreneur and the sharecropper, each getting three-eighths. Thus the sharecropper would lost one-eight of his previous share. But when the demonstration took place landlords and entrepreneurs retreated.

No working class or section of the working class hates the ruling class as these sharecroppers hate their rulers. They know that the main enemy is at home. They can see it. The enemy is not a trust, nor a corporation, nor figures in a bank. He is there, visible. The burden of the sharecropper’s complaint is that the landlord sits in his house, does nothing, and gets everything, while they do all the work and get nothing.

There is Walter Richardson, for instance, owner of a cotton gin and landowner, who says that no “niggers” will get any payments from him and, left to him, he would run every Negro out of southeast Missouri. The croppers state that they have put him where he is, and this is the way that he is talking about them now.

There is J.B. Conrad, prosecuting attorney of New Madrid County, who makes it known that no Negro is to come to him to prosecute any white man.

There is P.M. Barton with 55,000 acres, who employs 5,000 day laborers and sharecroppers. He is a millionaire many times over and the contrast between his wealth and their misery is too much for the Negro worker. The experience of generations has taught them that there is no salvation from that side. The sharecropper knows that he has no future, either as cropper or day laborer. Once the worker has turned his back on capitalism he instinctively finds his way to socialism and these croppers are no exception.

Such is the development of capitalism that it disciplines, unites, and organizes the workers and shapes their thoughts in the direction of socialism. It is the capitalist state itself which has taught the croppers. The Roosevelt government, fooling the workers and, to some degree, fooling its more naive supporters, has made a great deal of fuss about the La Forge project. This typical piece of liberal window-dressing consists of a settlement for both Negroes and white, although as usual in the South the two are kept apart. Each farmer has 60 acres of land to farm. The government supplies livestock and machinery for common use. Each farm has a good five room house attached to it. Each racial group has a school for the children. There is a co-operative store, where at the end of the year a good percentage on the goods purchased is repaid. Best of all, the government undertakes to buy the crop at a good price. In press and pulpit, on the radio and the political platform, this wonderful piece of work by the Roosevelt government has been trumpeted as one of the outstanding achievements of the New Deal and the beginning of the sharecroppers’ paradise on earth.

In reality, it is one of the greatest pieces of humbuggery that you can find. For, of the 20,000 Negroes who work in southeast Missouri, there are about 60 families on the La Forge project. There is a similar number of whites. Maybe when Roosevelt is finished with the war he will think about extending the project, but if the croppers all get farms, where will the landlord get labor? The croppers will get farms when they take them.

One important result, however, has come from the project. It has turned the mind of the most advanced of the sharecroppers in a certain direction. They know what they want. They want sixty acres of land. They want the government to supply the livestock and the tractors and the other machinery to work, to “co-operate” as they phrase it. They want the school and the co-op store. It is a complete social program and it is a socialist program. Though they live and work under conditions which they cannot change by any means that they can see, what distinguishes them from so many workers elsewhere is that they do not aim merely at higher wages and better conditions or honest landlords. They do not want to have anything to do with the old system at all.

The economic and social conditions have driven them far forward in political understanding. They formulate a position on the war with almost Leninist simplicity. “If we get the farms and the schools and the co-op store, then we will fight for our country. Otherwise we have nothing to fight for.”

Take the following dialogue. A farmer is asked if he isn’t concerned about the fear that Hitler may bomb his house.

“That shack!” he replies with scorn. “That shack should have been bombed 50 years ago.”

“But the bomb may kill you.”

“What does it matter? I get six bits a day, when I work.”

All would not be able to reply so clearly. Among any group of people living in the same conditions there are different levels of development. But that most would respond immediately to these ideas, if clearly and powerfully set before them, is unquestionable.

If they understand the landlord and what he stands for, as far as they are concerned they have no illusions about the Roosevelt government. How could they? Roosevelt has been in power for nearly ten years. What have they to show for it? They know they have only themselves to depend upon. Many of them have at various times joined the UCAPAWA but the locals are not functioning. Periodically Whitfield goes around and makes a speech here and there. But that is about all.

Government relief is given from August to December and consists of beans and graham flour and at other times of graham flour and beans. The graham flour at times is absolutely uneatable even by starving people. At long intervals they will get a pair of overalls or some fat sow belly as meat.

Roosevelt gives them fireside chats, nothing more. What they will get they will have to fight for. For the time being they want $2 a day for an eight hour day when they work as day laborers. They want better relief. They want either money or an order to the store.

Such is their temper and their disillusionment that at the back of their minds most of them are ready for anything. What they need most is organization, the age-old need of the working class. They respect the union, and if the union took any interest in them they would respond. If ever there was an opportunity to start work with the certainty of building a large and powerful organization to struggle for immediate demands and at the same time nourish a consciousness of the new society, it is here.

Despite their many limitations, these workers, in a fundamental sense, are among the most advanced in America. For, to any Marxist, an advanced worker is one who, looking at the system under which he lives, wants to tear it to pieces. That is exactly what the most articulate think of capitalism in southeast Missouri.


What Has Been Done, What Must Be Done

Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 40, 6 October 1941, p 2

The question now is, as always: What is to be done? And that question can only be answered on the basis of what is being done. The answer to what is being done is: Nothing, absolutely nothing.

The Negro sharecroppers are in the UCAPAWA. Probably at different times some 2,500 have joined the union. They rarely pay dues and their poverty is such that this is at least understandable. But every man who has once joined considers himself a member of the union, dues or no dues. They think in terms of the union. To organize them around their union for their immediate demands and militant action is a task that is merely waiting for revolutionary energy, devotion, and understanding.

But the Stalinists are not interested. Periodically they hold a convention. The speeches are made, the program of action outlined. And there it rests. Whitfield, the titular leader, is a parson busy with a church. He is on the union payroll and the Stalinists control the payroll. In case of any dissatisfaction, Whitfield can be depended upon to go around, make a few rousing speeches, and restore his authority and the authority of the union. This was the situation even before the Stalinists started to support Roosevelt’s war policy. Today they will be like tigers against anyone who attempts to organize the union for action against the landlords. And here, as elsewhere, it is the greatest delusion to believe that the Stalinists can be exposed by talk, agitation, propaganda, or newspapers. They have to be exposed in action and this is the only way. There is no doubt that this can be done.

During the demonstration, the sharecroppers turned to the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. Butler drove around, telling them to go backwhere they were to go back to was not made clear. The croppers understood Butler’s role perfectly.

“The police tell us to go back. And you, our leader, tell us to go back. What is the difference between you?”

Patient, unobtrusive, careful preparatory work must be done by the more advanced of the men themselves. It will take time. But the difficulties can be conquered. United action on a wide scale is now nothing new to them. With the necessary training, instruction, and patience, there is no reason why a movement should not develop of such power as to sweep away and expose forever in that area the real role of the Stalinists as people who are concerned with nothing else but the plots and maneuvers of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia. In that respect the history of the Stalinist party among Chicago Negroes is very instructive.

The ruling class is aware of the dangerous situation. A bill is now before Congress to raise wages and improve working conditions. But such is the social and political power of the landlords that nothing but the organized action of the masses themselves will be able to enforce the most elementary provision, even if it is passed. It is precisely to deal with such paper propositions that the system of terrorism is maintained by the ruling class in the South. It will take more than bills in Congress to help the Southern sharecroppers as it took more than bills and fireside chats to organize the Ford workers. The workers had to get down to business and handle Henry Ford themselves.

Hitherto we have dealt almost exclusively with the Negro sharecroppers and day laborers. But what about the whites? Here is a problem which it is easy to solve in theory but difficult to solve in practice. Years ago the white agricultural worker in the South did not pick or chop cotton. He was above that. But the laws of capitalist decline are merciless and today he is driven to compete with the Negro masses. He is as a rule a little better off. But his general conditions are such that he hates the landlord and the conditions of his existence as fiercely as the Negroes.

Yet the two groups of workers are on the whole separate from each other. Some whites are in the union, but the percentage is very small. The union, such as it is, is overwhelmingly Negro.

The white landlords keep up a steady propaganda:

“Do not join any union with those blacks. All they want is to get after our white women.”

But it is idle to believe that this is what keeps white and black agricultural laborers and sharecroppers apart. There is more to it than that. The working whites are an economically privileged group. Jobs as truck drivers, mechanics, etc. are reserved for the whites. When the WPA has jobs to give out, a Negro gets one only after scores of whites have got theirs. The white school teachers get better pay. The white children get better schools. In southeast Missouri the relief authorities will even pass the word around to the whites in a certain area to meet at a certain place, where meat, lard, and clothes are given out while the graham flour and beans are practically all that the Negroes get. It is on this solid, concrete basis that the race prejudice flourishes, not to mention the social advantages which can ease life and nourish pride where life is so hard and degradation so near.

What was the reaction of the whites to the demonstration? Some white families sat down with the demonstrators and a few even went with them to Poplar Bluff. Others came around and told them to stick it out. But a great number said that the Negroes would get nothing by it and were merely being stupid.

What do the Negroes think? Their attitude to these white workers is revolutionary, to the highest degree. The white worker, many of them say, is stupid. He is fooled by the bosses with all this talk about women. If, says one sharecropper to another, these whites were to join with us, we could tear this country to pieces. And a chorus of approval greets his words.

So anxious are they to settle accounts with the landlords that they see in the white workers not their bitter social enemies of many generations, but only possible allies in the class struggle. Propaganda, education, patient work, will have to be done to knit those elements that draw closer together. But it is the opinion of this writer that so deep-rooted a social phenomenon will only receive a serious shock by the usual way in which all serious problems of the workers’ movement are solved or partially solved by mass action.

Every effort must be made to get all the workers together on a basis of equality. But at present it is the Negro workers who are active, and any rally big action on their part which will have results, will have a tremendous effect on the whites and open the way to a union like the UAW and an organization like the SWOC.

Some time or other that sharecropper-landlord situation is going to explode. Imperialist war, monopoly capitalism, feudalism, and a caste system closer to the Hindu caste system than anything else in the modern world – that is the most dangerous pile of explosives to be found in any regional area of the United States.

Last updated on 26.1.2013