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When Black Sharecroppers in the South Rose Up

In the 1930s, Socialist and Communist organizers tried to help Black sharecroppers rise up against their oppressors.

The Socialist Party–backed Southern Tenant Farmers Union became perhaps the most significant force supporting black sharecroppers against white plantation owners in the Delta. Who made up the union? What tactics did they use to organize and fight?

The STFU was an interracial union that included both sharecroppers and tenant farmers. The distinction mattered, for sharecropping was generally confined to black people. It was a form of wage labor whereby the workers were paid in the form of a share of the crop and thus kept in constant debt. Tenant farmers were renters who paid their rent in the form of crop or cash, thus allowing for some degree of nominal independence. Often, tenants were former landowners who had lost their land. In the Delta, these distinctions were often collapsed, but the racial distinctions did matter.

The union was formed in response to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which introduced controlled production. Landowners received federal parity payments for reducing one-third of their cotton production. In the South, planters used the system to displace laborers and collect the payments. The workers lost their homes and access to food they had been forced to buy at the plantation commissaries. Many lived on the side of highways in tent colonies. Some were hired as day laborers to chop or pick cotton. The union sought to publicize the plight of the displaced and the limits of the AAA. They also staged strikes for higher wages on the plantations. These were met by extreme violence.

The STFU was remarkable for its attempt at interracial organizing, the planters’ worst nightmare. Their chances of success were not great from the beginning due to the violence and the political power of the plantation class. Their success was further restricted by the dramatic shifts occurring in agricultural production that the Depression, federal policies, and World War II accelerated. Controlled cotton production and mechanization became the future of large-scale agriculture, and this spelled displacement for millions of black and white families.

Interracial unionism faced tensions within as well. The union was run by two white Socialists. It fell apart when the black members voted to affiliate with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)–affiliated union of agricultural workers, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA).

The STFU was a Socialist Party–backed union, and the Socialist Party of America (SPA) was overwhelmingly a white party that was strong in the Southwest, where white farmers were being displaced on a grand scale and turned into tenant farmers. You might say it grew in the Southwest out of the failure of the Populist movement to forge an interracial movement in the 1890s.