By consensus of his peers, including critics, Oscar Goodbar Johnston, a lawyer, planter, politician, civic leader, and federal government official in the field of agricultural policy, possessed one of Mississippi’s and the South’s most agile and gifted minds. Born in Jackson on 27 January 1880, Johnston, the son of businessman and public servant John Calvin Johnston and Emma Goodbar Johnston, spent part of his adolescence in the Delta before graduating from Kentucky Military Institute in 1899 and Tennessee’s Cumberland School of Law in 1901. Johnston served in the Mississippi legislature and joined the Tank Corps as a private during World War I before returning to Mississippi and running for governor in 1919 against Lee M. Russell, a protégé of Piney Woods demagogue Theodore G. Bilbo. Though Johnston won better than 47 percent of the statewide vote in the primary runoff, his identification with wealthy plantation river counties against the hill and Piney Woods area in the era of the redneck revolt ensured his defeat. Johnston fondly quoted Bilbo’s perhaps apocryphal statement, “I told you I could take the worst man in the state and beat the best one with him.”
Johnston’s eclectic career in the early 1920s included civic leadership in Clarksdale as well as banking and planting. He joined other prominent Delta planters in founding the Staple Cotton Cooperative Association, a Greenwood-based agency that sought to promote orderly and profitable marketing of long-staple cotton. In 1926 Johnston became the Memphis general counsel for the British-owned Delta and Pine Land Company of Scott, Mississippi. Delta and Pine Land owned thirty-eight thousand acres of land, making it one of the South’s largest long-staple cotton producers. During the Great Flood of 1927, Johnston helped direct the plantation’s recovery, including providing for the company’s sharecroppers who had scattered in the chaos. That same year, the British bondholders named him president of the sprawling Mississippi plantation. During the Great Depression, however, the well-managed and generally well-funded and retrenched corporate plantation wobbled on the edge of financial collapse.
With agriculture languishing, Johnston was appointed director of finance for the newly created Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) in 1933 while continuing to serve as Delta and Pine Land’s president. Heading to Washington as a pragmatic conservative who sought to fortify American agriculture, particularly cotton, within the welfare-capitalist consensus, Johnston found himself among northeastern liberal social engineers, some of whom wanted to employ the AAA to change landlord-tenant relationships in the South. Interpreting his mandate broadly, Johnston persuaded Pres. Franklin Roosevelt to lend ten cents per pound on the 1933 cotton crop—a loan desperately needed by southern growers—and then helped set up and became one of the original directors of the Commodity Credit Corporation, the agency designed to distribute the loans. Further, to liquidate nearly 2.5 million bales of US-government-held cotton accrued through defaults on loans issued by the old Federal Farm Board, Johnston organized and became manager of the Federal Cotton Pool, developing a complicated scheme to allow participating farmers to purchase an interest in the government cotton while reducing acreage in return for subsidy or parity payments. The plan essentially offered farmers a no-lose proposition, since the loans were “non-recourse”—that is, if farmers defaulted, the government got the cotton, nothing more—while if prices improved (which they did), farmers pocketed the profits. Millions of farmers joined the program. Along the way, Johnston fended off interference from both the Senate Agriculture Committee and the AAA’s Legal Division, which argued that he had too much power and too little accountability. But cotton farmers benefited, and the program was a success. Johnston’s Delta and Pine Land Company also participated legally in New Deal subsidies, but in 1936–37 the unwanted notoriety of federal payments to an essentially British-owned corporation raised political questions about the New Deal.
Johnston’s management of thousands of black sharecroppers on the company’s highly visible cotton plantation defied the stereotype of the oppressive landlord by promoting a paternalistic welfare-capitalist system that delivered more cash, health care, and a superior lifestyle than most black agricultural workers had during the Great Depression. One Christian socialist admitted in 1942 that Johnston’s operations were “purely capitalistic money-making schemes although I think his workers are well paid.”
Within the New Deal and throughout the South, Johnston emerged as King Cotton’s chief advocate. Never a New Dealer, he became convinced that solutions to his industry’s perennial problems of overproduction, underconsumption, and intramural jealousies had to be solved by the industry itself. Initially planning to organize only producers, he soon broadened his vision to include the larger cotton industry, eventually coaxing producers, ginners, merchants, mills, cooperatives, warehousers, and cottonseed crushers into the National Cotton Council of America. The Cotton Council became a model of agricultural organization and a chief industry advocate before Congress. Though Johnston’s leadership was not unchallenged, cotton leaders in the late 1930s and early 1940s generally agreed that only he had the skills and political capital within the industry to make it work.
After World War II, Johnston brought order to an otherwise chaotic industry and enjoyed a brief period of elder statesmanship before declining physical and mental health forced his retirement by 1950. Shielded by Martha Anderson Johnston, his wife of half a century, he disappeared from public view and died in Greenville on 3 October 1955, just weeks before the new facilities of the National Cotton Council were dedicated in Memphis, Tennessee.
- Lawrence J. Nelson, King Cotton’s Advocate: Oscar G. Johnston and the New Deal (1999)
- Oscar Johnston Papers, Delta and Pine Land Company Records, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University