National Cotton Council of America

Organized in 1939, the National Cotton Council of America represented the loose consolidation of an old industry that had long defied unity. The council’s creation proved difficult and was made possible only by the desperate state of the cotton industry during the Great Depression. Plunging cotton exports, bulging warehouses, and growing international competition jeopardized the industry’s viability, and synthetics soon posed another challenge. Getting cotton from field to fiber also lent itself to intramural warfare among the industry’s components, with conflicting interests among producers, mills, processors, warehousers, shippers, and cottonseed crushers. One segment might reap benefits at the expense of others. Greater production, for example, meant lower prices for producers while generating revenue for processors and handlers, who trafficked in volume. The various components organized individual trade associations to protect their particular interests.

Producers were the largest and most disorganized of the industry’s segments. Cotton farmers were buffeted by the vagaries of weather, interest rates, and labor supply, along with market fluctuations. The need for unity became acutely apparent in 1937, when cotton farmers, with acreage restrictions off for the first time during the New Deal, produced the largest crop in US history—nearly nineteen million bales. The glut destroyed the cotton market and helped plunge the nation into the so-called Roosevelt Recession. With the addition of international trade restrictions and a large foreign crop, US cotton exports plummeted to a half-century low.

During the Great Depression, the New Deal had intervened in the cotton economy with acreage restrictions, subsidies, and crop loans. If farmers defaulted on their loans, their cotton was moved into federally approved warehouses. By the late 1930s, however, the New Deal had run its course. If the American cotton industry was to survive, it needed to save itself.

That salvation originated in the Mississippi Delta. In the mid- to late 1930s leaders of the Delta Chamber of Commerce wanted to promote new uses for cotton but realized that such ideas required a more aggressive organization. One of the agency’s talented leaders, William Rhea Blake, thought the Delta Chamber (renamed the Delta Council in 1938) might spawn a national body to do just that and helped sell the idea to William T. Wynn, a highly respected and prominent Greenville lawyer, banker, and businessman. Wynn, in turn, apparently recruited the most prominent cotton man in the United States, Oscar Goodbar Johnston, president of the Delta and Pine Land Company in Scott, Mississippi.

Johnston, a planter, lawyer, and orator, had held several appointments in the New Deal, including serving on the board of the Commodity Credit Corporation, an agency he helped organize in 1933 to distribute loans to cash-starved southern farmers. As head of the Federal Cotton Pool, which he also organized, he liquidated 2.4 million bales of government-held cotton between 1934 and 1936 without breaking the market, in the process returning profits to southern cotton farmers. The highest-profile cotton planter in America, with an almost reverential following in the cotton industry, Johnston had been contemplating an organization of cotton producers only. Among the often-jealous segments of cotton’s kingdom, the idea of an industry-wide body—once thought too visionary to achieve—percolated in the South as the cotton economy floundered. Most interest-group executives were prepared to yield leadership to Johnston, and in 1938 he abandoned his original goal of a producers’ organization in favor of a national body dedicated to finding new uses for cotton and speaking for a united industry.

At the June 1938 annual meeting of the Delta Chamber of Commerce on the campus of Delta State Teachers College in Cleveland, King Cotton’s retainers, led by Johnston, brought together leaders of allied cotton associations; got seed money pledged by Mississippi’s governor, Hugh White; and reached consensus on the need for a national council. Strenuous organizational work throughout the South soon followed, including establishing state units and blunting territorial and leadership jealousies and fears west of the Mississippi River, notably in Texas. According to Mississippi editor Hodding Carter, “By airliner, by train, more frequently by automobile,” organizers “had traveled separately and together, persuading dubious state groups to whom they are strangers, smoothing internal differences, bringing together clashing producers, ginners, compressors, seed crushers, merchants to whose divergent doors the name and purpose of Oscar Johnston is a ready passkey.”

Organizational efforts culminated at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis in November 1938 with eighty-six delegates from fourteen cotton states responding to Johnston’s plea for unity. An intricate plan developed, including requiring two-thirds majorities and veto options over policy for each branch of the industry. Two cents per bale from each state unit would provide funding. The Cotton Council sought to advance “consumption of American cotton, cottonseed, and the products thereof.”

Two months later, with sufficient funding in sight, the National Cotton Council of America held its first annual convention in Dallas and named Johnston as president and twenty-five leading cotton men as members of the board. Unseen challenges lay ahead, including closed markets occasioned by war, conflict with the American Farm Bureau Federation, financial issues, and the council’s intense and incessant lobbying of Congress. Had industry leaders known about the looming challenge of synthetics, Blake later said, “it might have just made us quit before we started.” Mills and cooperatives joined the original five segments—producers, ginners, merchants, crushers, and warehousers—and, over the years, spin-offs included Cotton Incorporated and the Institute for Cotton International. If the National Cotton Council of America could not restore King Cotton to his throne, it could claim its share of credit for unifying and saving a vital American industry.

Further Reading

  • Hodding Carter, “Cotton Fights Back! The Story of the National Cotton Council,” Greenville Delta Democrat-Times (1939)
  • Lawrence J. Nelson, King Cotton’s Advocate: Oscar G. Johnston and the New Deal (1999)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title National Cotton Council of America
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date February 20, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018