By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University
It is sometimes said that poor people have nothing to lose by protesting because they possess so little. But the opposite is true. Poor people have the most to lose because they can lose it all. In 1939, adversely affected by the New Deal farm subsidy programs, the sharecroppers in Southeast Missouri risked everything, including their lives. Why?
The ‘Black Cabinet’
When the Social Security Act of 1935, the centerpiece of the New Deal’s social safety net legislation was introduced, African Americans did not have many options when it came to redressing their grievances. Why didn’t they appeal to the local authorities and complain to those in power?
When it came to redressing the problems faced by the African American community, local authorities often meant local ‘white’ authorities. It was then no surprise that they were often in cahoots with those who were stealing their relief. They could file a complaint with a Washington bureaucrat at one of the New Deal’s alphabet agencies. But with who? And how? The federal government was a world away, even for Black people who lived in DC.
So, many chose to write to President Roosevelt. His evening radio addresses conveyed empathy and accessibility. He also assembled a group of African American thinkers, his ‘Black Cabinet’, to advise him on racial matters. One of the group’s leaders was educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who also worked in the administration as Director of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration. Her presence, along with that of the other ‘cabinet’ members, signaled that the president took Black concerns seriously.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
But Roosevelt received too many letters, from too many people, to read and respond to every one. The letters made it into his archives, but few made it into his hands. Complaining against corruption was also extremely dangerous. The cost for challenging a white person for stealing from a Black person ran as high as a Black person’s life.
The frustrating lack of viable options for getting the Roosevelt administration to make good on its relief and recovery promises forced Black sharecroppers in the Missouri bootheel to take extreme action.
Missouri Bootheel Demonstration
On a cold January morning in 1939, 1,200 African American men, women, and children pitched tents alongside US Highways 60 and 61 and waited for the world to notice. They had suffered tremendously since before the Depression from grinding poverty, brought about by perpetual debt and racial terror.
But their misery had been exacerbated by declining crop prices and made worse by an environmental disaster—the Great Flood of 1937. And now their homes were being threatened. Planters had been slowly pushing sharecroppers off their land, replacing them with wage workers and mechanical cotton pickers, all incentivized by New Deal farm subsidy programs. Now a massive wave of evictions loomed.
A ‘Man-made’ Disaster?
Desperate and determined, the Black sharecroppers, along with 200 white sharecroppers, gathered what few possessions they owned and made their way to the roadside. The press, alerted in advance, called the event a strike, but it wasn’t. The Missouri sharecroppers left because they were about to be kicked off the land; their labor as croppers was no longer wanted.
Although the press mislabeled what was happening, their coverage of the protest was essential. Protest leader, William H. Jones, explained: “We have no place to go. We don’t know whether this will do us any good, but it will show … people what we are up against.”
The sight of so many with so little shook people to the core. But it didn’t move the American Red Cross, which refused to render aid, calling the encampment a ‘man-made’ disaster. And it didn’t change the mind of Missouri governor, Lloyd C. Stark, who opposed the protest from the start.
Laying the Groundwork for ‘Cropperville’
Stark ordered state police to relocate the sharecroppers, by force if necessary. “They took us eighteen miles back in the woods and dumped us,” explained Booker T. Clark. “We didn’t have nothing.”
Governor Stark hoped the adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ would apply. But it was too late. The protesters had already caught the attention of President Roosevelt, who instructed his Secretary of Agriculture to assist those who “went out on the road”. Surplus food and tents were sent immediately. Emergency cash grants followed.
The plight of the sharecroppers also spurred students at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, a Black college founded by Black Civil War veterans, to organize a support campaign. The student effort laid the groundwork for a cooperative farming community for the sharecroppers called Cropperville, which served as a blueprint for 10 additional communities that the federal government established for former sharecroppers.
One can say that, when the protest was over, they were several steps closer to freedom.
And yet, African Americans living in Northern industrial cities continued to face similar crisis revolving around jobs and housing. When the Depression hit, Black male unemployment surged in the seven leading Northeastern and Midwestern cities from 14% to 40%. For Black women, it jumped from 8% to 45%. Unfortunately, by 1937, the unemployment rates hadn’t changed that much, only dropping to 32% for Black men and 35% for Black women, a sad plight indeed for the community.
Common Questions about the Missouri Sharecroppers
Desperate and determined, the Black sharecroppers, along with 200 white sharecroppers, gathered what few possessions they owned and made their way to the roadside. The press, alerted in advance, called the event a strike, but it wasn’t. The Missouri sharecroppers left because they were about to be kicked off the land.
Missouri governor, Lloyd C. Stark, ordered state police to relocate the sharecroppers, by force if necessary.
The plight of the sharecroppers also spurred students at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, a Black college founded by Black Civil War veterans, to organize a support campaign. The student effort laid the groundwork for a cooperative farming community for the sharecroppers called Cropperville.