The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) was founded in 1934 by white activists H. L. Mitchell and Clay East near Tyronza, Arkansas. Influenced by long histories of union and socialist activity in Arkansas, Mitchell and East applied their socialist ideology to the plight of evicted sharecroppers throughout the Mississippi and Arkansas River deltas. Because of the Agricultural Adjustment Act’s acreage-reduction component, large plantation owners allowed a percentage of their land to lie fallow while collecting checks from the federal government and evicting sharecroppers en masse, forcing many into roadside tent communities. When a planter and agency official near Tyronza expelled many of his sharecroppers, Mitchell and East met with some of the evicted farmers, both white and black, and formed the STFU. For the better part of a decade, the organization focused on the plight of sharecroppers, staging protests, strikes, and marches and encouraging locals throughout the rural South. Through organizing and direct political action, the STFU hoped to overturn the plantation system of agriculture and in the process remake southern class and race relations into an egalitarian society that drew from both Populism and socialism.
STFU locals initially spread across northeast Arkansas, using residents’ experience with grassroots socialism, union organizing, and prophetic religion to gain supporters and organizers. African American organizer E. B. McKinney was drawn to the STFU because of its empowering rhetoric and direct action tactics. A circuit-riding preacher and Garveyite member of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, McKinney experienced the radical Gospel of Jesus that brought many rural African Americans to the STFU.
Union members and organizers faced incarceration and violence wherever they held meetings, particularly in 1935, when white planter resistance to union activity became so focused that many key figures, including Mitchell, fled to Memphis to reorganize the organization’s headquarters. Beatings, shootings, maimings, and murders followed many STFU meetings as white planters became more agitated with the interracial union. Despite these obstacles, membership in the STFU rose steadily between 1934 and 1936, and it spread into Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, and Tennessee. Though the major activities remained in Arkansas, the STFU headquarters in Memphis guaranteed that organizers targeted the Mississippi Delta.
The STFU’s presence in Mississippi jumped from negligible to significant when the Delta Cooperative Farm was organized in 1936 in Bolivar County, near Hillhouse. With the help of STFU officials, Christian missionaries, and Socialist Party activists, nearly thirty refugee families in acute physical danger and near starvation were brought to the cooperative for a fresh start. In 1938 a second tract of land in Holmes County was purchased by the same missionaries and activists and christened Providence Cooperative Farm. Each cooperative organized an STFU local, and key officials held meetings at both farms. Through the STFU’s efforts, word of the project spread across the Magnolia State. Though STFU locals in Mississippi boasted several thousand members, activities were never as focused as they were in Arkansas.
Beginning in 1937, STFU memberships dwindled and internal divisions prevented the continuation of its success. The STFU sought to increase its visibility by joining the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America and became an official member of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. But the STFU withdrew less than two years later as a consequence of bureaucratic red tape, higher dues, disagreements between communists among the cannery workers and socialists in the STFU, and the fact that no one in the umbrella labor federation knew how to deal with a rural union. Throughout the 1940s the STFU was plagued by internal divisions, racial tensions, cash shortages, and a paucity of imagination in an age of increasing mechanization. Key officials and organizers quibbled over how best to run the STFU, and arguments often ended in bruised egos and stagnation.
Misunderstandings between the organizers and the rank and file also damaged working relationships. Disillusioned by what they perceived as discrimination and paternalist attitudes, African American members including McKinney departed. Finally, as the New Deal ended and postwar industry boomed, rural laborers left the land in droves, headed for urban industrial centers. These factors led to the STFU’s decrease in influence and effectiveness in the rural South. After World War II the struggling STFU sought recognition in the new labor movement sweeping the country. Renamed the National Farm Labor Union, it officially joined the American Federation of Labor, relocated its headquarters to Washington, D.C., and supported farmworker strikes across the country. Though it remained involved in these disputes, the STFU never again challenged the status quo to the same extent as it had in the Arkansas Delta in the 1930s.
- Mark Fannin, Labor’s Promised Land: Radical Visions of Gender, Race, and Religion in the South (2003)
- Robert H. Ferguson, Remaking the Rural South: Interracialism, Christian Socialism, and Cooperative Farming in Jim Crow Mississippi (2018)
- Donald Grubbs, Cry from the Cotton: The Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and the New Deal (1971)
- Howard Kester, Revolt among the Sharecroppers (1997)
- H. L. Mitchell, Mean Things Happening in This Land: The Life and Times of H. L. Mitchell, Cofounder of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (1979)
- Elizabeth Ann Payne, Southern Cultures (Summer 1998)
- Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta (2003)