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B.J. Widick

”Powder Keg” in Sharecropper Plight

Poverty and Oppression So Stark, Writer Sees “Oakies” as Relative Aristocrats

(July 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 12, 1 July 1940, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

ST. LOUIS, Mo. – In writing about the plight of the sharecroppers and their problems, there is little one can add to what Charles Edmundson. of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, said in a special article last Sunday.

“Owing largely to the failure of the Administration in Washington to stand up to the politically powerful landowners in the South, the AAA is grinding the landless rank and file in this region down into a deeper and more stupefying poverty.

“As it works out over large areas, the AAA is a frustration of the law, a mockery of democratic procedure and a tool for the exploitation of one of the most cruelly submerged elements of our population.

“According to the Farm Security Administration, nearly 2.000,000 farm people have been forced off the land – into a poverty more intense than prevails among the agricultural workers John Steinbeck described in The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s Oakies are the aristocrats of the disinherited farmers, for they have jalopies in which to start the trek to the orange groves. Those remaining behind have no wheels on which to roll.

“The writer found widespread neglect of the rights of the non-voting groups, which include practically all the rural Negroes, and, because of rigid poll taxes, most of the white sharecroppers as well.”

Practice and Theory

In theory, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration provides that farm subsidies authorized by Congress be divided between the landowner and the tenant or sharecropper. In practice, the landowners either keep all the subsidy outright or introduce tractors and other machinery to displace farm hands so all the subsidy can be kept. Making share-croppers or tenant farmers into day laborers who get paid the least of all, guarantees the landowners the most profit.

In theory, all “producers”, landowners and sharecroppers, or tenant farmers, have the right to vote in electing all important committees that administer the law, etc. In practice, thousands of Negro and white sharecroppers never vote. Never were told they could, and where they knew they could, it was “safer” not to vote.

... Can’t Vote

However, there is “democracy” in many areas. The sharecroppers and tenant farmers are herded together to vote. But any ballot which is against the landowners proposals is simply thrown out. And terror is used to keep down the negative votes. This is the kind of “democracy” which prevails especially in the delta sections of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. Also in Alabama and Georgia.

Only in southeastern Missouri where the sharecroppers union now affiliated to the CIO, received nation-wide attention through its highway starvation siege are things a little better. Besides, some enlightened landowners broke the united front of reaction and had their sharecroppers vote what they thought.

Government subsidies come in soil-conservation checks, price-adjustment or parity checks and soil-building checks. Around these payments, besides all the other handicaps and difficulties, are woven a set of rules, procedure, etc. which the average sharecropper doesn’t understand because he has been kept in darkness about his rights. So he’s hooked.


To keep the sharecroppers ignorant of their rights, and to prevent them from struggling for their rights through union organization, the landowners band up in vigilante groups who specialize in beating up union organizers, terrorizing sharecroppers who may become union builders, and keeping the poor people down through sheer brute force.

Because there is a large supply of labor, and because it is mostly unorganized despite some courageous efforts, wages are terrible.

In California, for example, wages are supposed to be $2.10 a day and board. In this section of the country a tractor driver gets $1 a day for 12 hours work, a plowhand $.75 a day, a woman hoeing cotton is paid 60 cents for her back breaking labor. Cotton pickers get from 50 to 75 cents per hundred pounds. Less than ten cents an hour, often only 5 cents an hour for hard labor under a hot blazing sun. That is the situation-among hundreds of thousands of farm hands here.

As though that weren’t miserable enough, most of the day laborers, sharecroppers and tenant farmers are forced to buy from landowners’ stores. Prices are at least 25% higher for all things, compared to the independent stores – according to a survey made by a Church.

And. of course, there is the usual chiseling on loans or materials advanced to the tenants or sharecroppers, and the setting of all standards, purchase of all goods, and so forth solely by the landowner who sees to it that he comes out way ahead.

Is it any wonder that landowners admit, “We are sitting on a powder keg.” And they keep the explosion down by sitting down hard on the poor folks, Negro and white.

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Last updated: 10.9.2012