J.R. Johnson

One-Tenth of the Nation

Economic Upheaval in the South

(22 July 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 29, 22 July 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“Operation Dixie” has the most potent ally possible – the economic upheaval that is breaking up the old South.

There is taking place, below the Mason and Dixon line, a classic example of the penetration of heavy industry into a predominantly agricultural area, with the usual social and political consequences.

Cotton is no longer king. Naturally the cotton industry is still of most importance. But the war brought in industry on a scale unknown before. There was a Bell airplane plant near Atlanta with 29,000 workers. At the Oak Ridge atomic bomb plant in Tennessee there are 39,000 workers. There is a 15 million dollar alkali plant being constructed near Houston, Texas. There is a ten million dollar plant (plastics and rayon) rising in Kingsport, Tennessee. In Dallas, Texas, a plane factory is working on six million dollars worth of plane orders. Chemical plants are being built in Texas, Louisiana, Virginia. Southern businessmen are greedily striving to cash in on these new and modern sources of exploitation. But with this type of exploitation is born a new type of industrialized worker.

Cotton itself is undergoing striking changes. The mechanical cotton-picker is here. It can pick a bale of cotton in half the time and for a quarter of the cost of human labor. The sharecropper and the tenant farmer do not face complete extinction – capital does not work so scientifically and exactly. But this invention and the rotary chopper, the mechanical stripper, and other types of mechanized labor, will soon throw thousands upon thousands of croppers and tenants out of employment and permanently alter the conditions of labor of those remaining. Here again is being born a new type of agricultural worker.

New Developments

This economic movement has already shaken the labor force to its depths. During the war some three million workers migrated north, east and west. But vast numbers stayed or came out of the backwoods to work in the new industries. Many made wages that seemed to them fabulous – thirty dollars a week, sometimes fifty.

The old economic theory used to teach that the labor displaced by the mechanization of agriculture automatically found re-employment in the expansion of industry. First of all it was never altogether true. Secondly whatever truth there was in this theory has shrunk to shreds since the great crisis of 1929.

Today there is already unemployment in the South. It isn’t that there is not any work for some who are unemployed. There is. But they will not take it.

They scowl at wages of fifteen and twenty dollars a week. They are waiting for new jobs in the new industries at war wages. Many of them will wait in vain. Others are drifting from job to job, making a few dollars whenever it is absolutely necessary and waiting for the new kind of job. Negro women are drifting unwillingly back into domestic work. But not for the old five dollars a week. They demand 12, 15 and even 20 dollars. That is Southern labor today.

It is with these seething economic tendencies in mind, clashing with one another and with the old South that we can understand the political tendencies that have recently appeared. Prominent among those who are moving with the new trend in economy is Governor Arnall of Georgia. He defeated the notorious Governor Talmadge some years ago.

“Pappy” O’Daniel in Texas is threatened by a college professor, Homer Rainey, dismissed recently for “radicalism.” The Huey Long machine in Louisiana lost its last stronghold a few months ago – the mayoralty of New Orleans. Bilbo in Mississippi had one of the hardest fights of his life in his recent election. The economic movement has shaken up Southern politics.

Those anxious to profit by the latest industrialization like to think of themselves as “liberal.” Intellectuals and humanitarians, in harmony with the new trend, are busy trying, to reconcile the old with the new. The most striking manifestation of this is the Southern Conference for Human Welfare. Its leaders and supporters are determined to reduce racial prejudice, introduce “equality of opportunity,” and various other admirable things by means of what they call “education.”

These liberals and this liberalism are just a hundred years too late. “Operation Dixie” will give them an organized working class which will stunt their liberalism before it is out of baby clothes.

Instead of listening to the milk and water progressivism of Arnall and the pious platitudes of the Human Welfare Conference, the Negroes are listening to the CIO.

The stage is being set for dramatic conflicts in which old problems will be solved by modern means. This is so important that next week I shall devote a column to an analysis of what is now taking place in the South and the general line of future developments. It will be possible to grasp some of the greatest lessons of modern politics from a close examination of what is taking place in the South today.

Last updated on 8 July 2019