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Harry Strang

The Forgotten Men in America’s No-Man’s Land

Ward H. Rodgers Tells Stirring Story of Share-Croppers’ Battle

(May 1935)

From The New Militant, Vol. I No. 22, 18 May 1935, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The plight and struggle of the exploited sharecroppers of Arkansas are an integral part of the plight and struggle of the whole American working class. It is quite logical, therefore, that the Non-Partisan Labor Defense should be part of the committee supporting my appeal against a six-month’s sentence for ‘anarchy.’ The Southern Tenant Farmers Union appreciates this support. I wish the Non-Partisan Labor Defense every success in its effort to build a nation-wide, fighting defense body including workers of many political affiliations.”

Thus Ward H. Rodgers, class war victim of the Arkansas plantation struggles now touring the East on behalf of his union, of whose executive he is a member, wound up a brief address to members of the New York N.P.L.D. at their reorganization meeting last week. Rodgers, who will speak in many eastern cities during the next two months, was unanimously elected an honorary member of the new Executive Board of the N.P.L.D. at this meeting.

Interviewed after the meeting, Rodgers told something of the situation in Arkansas, the fight of his union and his own persecution at the hands of the landowning class.

“Our union is made up of sharecroppers. A sharecropper is a man who owns nothing but his own labor-power. Generally, whether Negro or white, he has no vote. He lives on a great plantation and farms a little corner of it. The plantation owner furnishes him, that is gives him seed, a mule, tools and food, as well as a rotten clapboard shack. The cropper and his family work all year, planting, cultivating, picking.”

NRA a New Burden

“He is supposed to get half the market price brought by the crop. That would be little enough ... but by the time the landlord gets through with his ‘deducts’ – whether reckoned honestly or with a crooked pencil – the cropper gets next to nothing. The new policies of Roosevelt mean nothing to the cropper – except that some of the most energetic among them have been forced off the land altogether to starve with the urban unemployed.

“Poverty, illiteracy, tuberculosis, pellagra, malaria, starvation ... that is the life story of the sharecroppers of Arkansas as well as of other parts of the country. In Arkansas the average family earns about $300 a year. Half the population of the state are living off that much – if you can call it living.”

The croppers have been promised salvation a thousand times, but they never got a step nearer until they began to take their fate in their own hands. When Rodgers and others began to organize the Southern Tenant Farmers Union last July, the croppers at Tyronza went for it in a big way. Today, according to Rodgers, it has 10,000 members in 50 locals in eastern Arkansas, with a few in southern Missouri and eastern Oklahoma. It has held the largest mass meetings ever held in the history of Arkansas – and held them in the face of a fierce government-backed terror campaign launched by the landowners.

Color Issue Raised

“I used to hitch-hike when I went out organizing,” Rodgers related, “and it was quite safe. We started in the summer and the owners thought it was just a little pre-election stunt by political fakers. Election passed, and we went on organizing the union. We took in Negroes and white, mixed up in the same union. We showed the croppers that militant unity is the only road, that class matters rather than color. The union grew.

“Then the owners changed their attitude. They did not wait for us to strike. They raised the color issue. Then, before we could even pose demands, the terror began, and now I can’t move around in North Eastern Arkansas safely even in a high-powered car. Deputies, night-riders, vigilantes are the exploiters’ answer to the croppers’ first move to improve their living conditions.”

Rodgers outlined some of the acts of terror perpetrated by the agents of the landowners. A few of them follow.

On November 20, 1934: W.H. Stultz, President of the Union, and three organizers were arrested and jailed while organizing Cross County. They were held in jail for 40 days. At the trial in February the judge ordered a verdict of “Not guilty.” The union meeting was broken up by Sheriff Stacy who acted on orders from plantation owners near Parkin and Earle, Arkansas. A gang of gunmen accompanied Sheriff Stacy, including Floyd Roberts, planter, O.R. Bel-ford, plantation rider (foreman), W.W. Hazlip, Justice of the Peace, and Walls Campbell, Justice of the Peace at Parkin, Arkansas. O.R. Belford took charge of A.B. Brookins, Negro minister and Chaplain of the Union and beat him so badly that it was necessary for Sheriff Stacy to secure medical treatment.

On January 26, 1935, Rodgers was arrested at Marked Tree, while addressing a meeting of Negro and white croppers. Fred H. Stafford, deputy prosecuting Attorney for Poinsett County had been stationed with his stenographer at the edge of the crowd with the evident intention of framing someone. Rodgers was tried for “anarchy” by a jury composed of 11 planters and business men and 1 tenant farmer. He was sentenced to six months and a fine of $500. The case is now on appeal.

Threaten Lynchings

On February 1 Lucien Koch and Robert Reed, both of Commonwealth College, Ark., were forcibly taken from a church at Gilmore, Arkansas by an armed mob carrying a rope with which to lynch them. Both were severely beaten and “pistol whipped.” The mob was led by Jake Lewis, a plantation rider and Benton Moore, formerly an officer of the law in Crittenden County.

On February 2 Rodgers, Koch, Atley Delaney and Robert Baker were arrested and jailed by J. Mays, city marshall of Lepanto, Arkansas.

They were terrorized while in jail by a mob of planters who threatened to lynch them. They were held in a flooded cell for three days without adequate food or fire.

On February 9 Powers Hapgood, of the Socialist Party and several union officials were prevented from holding a meeting at Birdsong by planters and officers.

On March 6 Will Irving, sharecropper and union member was shot in the arm by a plantation rider named Lancaster.

On March 16 Norman Thomas, H.L. Mitchell, John Herling and Howard Kester were manhandled and slugged by a drunken mob of planters and officers at Birdsong. Bob Frazier of Tyronza, Arkansas, reputed head of the recently organized Ku Klux Klan was in the mob. There were many prominent planters in the mob who took no active part except to encourage the others.

On March 21 a mob, many of whom are identified, attempted to lynch Rev. A.B. Brookins, Union Chaplain and organizer at Marked Tree, Arkansas. After the mob had failed on four occasions to lure Brookins from his cabin they turned their guns upon his home and riddled it with bullets. Brookins is in hiding.

On March 22 W.H. Stultz was taken to the office of Chapman-Dewey Land Co. in Marked Tree by A.C. Spillings, Fred Bradsher and Bob Frazier. Stultz was told by Frailer and Bradsher that they would personally see to it that “Your brains are blown out and your body thrown into the St. Francis River.”

On March 26 the home of C.T. Carpenter of Marked Tree, attorney for the union, was fired upon by vigilantes in Marked Tree.

Shoot Union Men

On April 1 Walter Moskop, one of the members of the trio which toured eastern cities in behalf of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, escaped from his home when he was told by his eleven year old boy that the vigilantes were closing in on home to kill him. Andy Smith, riding boss for Chapman-Dewey, lay in hiding throughout the day near Moskop’s home. Moskop is a native of Arkansas and has had his home in Marked Tree for years.

On April 2 the home of E.B. McKinney, another member of the party which toured the east in the interest of the union and vice-president of the union, was riddled with more than fifty bullets while his family and some friends were inside. Two men were badly shot and the entire household terrorized when the mob told them that unless they all left Marked Tree within 24 hours they would be killed.

The Federal government, that friend of the oppressed, sent an investigator to Arkansas, Mrs. Mary Connor Myers. She didn’t like to make trouble for the plantation owners, but so terrible is the plight of the croppers, so obvious the crimes against them, that her report necessarily reflected some criticism of the landowners’ methods. As a result, the Department of Agriculture and the AAA have suppressed the Myers report. Senator Robinson of Arkansas, Roosevelt’s floor-leader in the upper House of Congress, uses his power to block all requests for the publication of the report. He vetoes any Federal intervention on behalf of the croppers.

The Federal government knows what is going on in Arkansas, and it wants nobody else to know about it or to do anything about it!

N.P.L.D. Aids Defense

Rodgers stated that the only solution is further organization and further struggle. He said that since the terror was loosed against the croppers, the union has moved ahead.

“Down in Arkansas we are fighters,” he says. “When the owners began to fight the union, the croppers came to the sensible conclusion that a union must be a good thing for the croppers. So in they came, and no terror can stop them.”

Rodgers case comes before the higher court of Arkansas in October. His defense is being handled by a union committee which has the backing of the Ward H. Rodgers Defense Committee, a joint body including the Workers Party, the Socialist Party, the I.W.W., the Non-Partisan Labor Defense, unions and other bodies. If this committee succeeds in raising the needed funds and bringing aggressive pressure on the plantation owners of Arkansas, Rodgers may yet be saved from a six-months’ sentence in jail. To save him would be a real aid to the share-croppers and their union, of which he is a leading militant.

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