In 1933, the first year of the Franklin Roosevelt administration, the New Deal dramatically changed the nature of Mississippi agriculture by setting up the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), a large federal agency that had the job of raising agricultural prices, stabilizing agricultural expenses to help farm owners keep from losing their land to debt, and possibly improving the conditions of agricultural workers. The AAA addressed the problem of low cotton prices by setting up a subsidy program to encourage farmers to decrease production so prices would increase and expenses would decrease.
The program was voluntary and dramatic. Planters plowed up more than ten million acres of cotton in 1933. Cotton prices responded quickly, rising from 6.5 cents a pound in 1932 to 10.17 cents a year later and increasing slightly more over the next few years.
The primary controversy involved how the program should deal with sharecroppers and renters. AAA leaders disagreed about whether the subsidies should go to agricultural laborers. US secretary of agriculture Henry Wallace hoped the crop subsidies would be divided evenly so that cutting production would not further harm tenants, who were already facing severe poverty. Other officials—most notably, Oscar G. Johnston, the Mississippian who was president of the massive Delta and Pine Land Company and the financial director of the AAA cotton programs, and Cully Cobb, the Mississippian who ran the agency’s Cotton Section—believed that the program needed to focus on stabilizing the agricultural system rather than on addressing the problems of laborers. Arguments continued, with the side that wanted to guarantee payments to laborers losing most battles. Officials tried to clarify payment programs in 1934 and 1935, but AAA lawyers (including Alger Hiss) who pushed for fair treatment of agricultural workers were fired in 1935.
The subsidy programs allowed plantation owners to fire some workers and reclassify others, and Agriculture Department officials failed to recognize that most of Mississippi’s African Americans lacked the power to challenge the system through formal complaints. The AAA almost always sent checks to landlords, allowing them to decide how to split the money. The largest planting operations received the largest checks: Delta and Pine Land, for example, received more than three hundred thousand dollars between 1933 and 1935.
AAA policies, therefore, ultimately permitted farm owners to keep their land while laborers either lost their jobs or had to shift from sharecropping to more occasional wage labor. Many laborers were evicted or moved on to other work.
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880 (1985)
- Jack Temple Kirby, Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920–1960 (1987)
- Bruce J. Schulman, From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South (1994)
- Jeannie Whayne, A New Plantation South: Land, Labor, and Federal Favor in Twentieth-Century Arkansas (1996)