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ESSAY The LadyWas a Sharecropper Myrtle Lawrence and the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union by Elizabeth Anne Payne with photographs by Louise Boyle Myrtle Lawrence shellspeas in herdining room with (left to right) granddaughterIjtcille Kimbrell, daughter IcyJewelLawrence, andgrandson Elroe Kimbrell. Photograph by Uuise Boyle. Courtesy ofthe Kheel Centerfor IMbor-Management Documentation &Archives, Cornell University. Editors' note: This essay is part of a forthcoming book, "Showers of Blessings": Myrtle Lawrence and the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. rom his deathbed, Alabama native Aubrey Williams pleaded for a more textured understanding of die South's poor whites. Lamenting that the poor white southerner "has been despised and insulted over and over, and he has been cheated and he has been gulled and he has been exploited," Williams hoped to share his hard-earned wisdom that the struggle of the African American was entwined intrinsically with the fate ofthe southern poor white. As a New Deal administrator , the director of the National Youth Administration, and an activist in numerous reform organizations, Williams had lived his life serving the southern poor of both races. The "cause of the Negro cannot be won," he insisted. "The Soudi cannot be saved until he [the poor white] too is saved."1 After a lifetime of commitment and reflection, Williams despaired that too often the South's literary and academic liberals, and many of its political and social reformers, rejected poor white southerners as a way ofdistancing themselves from the region's racial practices . Accordingly, they sought to elevate their own standing in the eyes of other liberals, especially northern supporters, by applauding the virtue, cleverness, and courage of blacks while at the same time mocking or ridiculing the social habits ofimpoverished whites. A scene from the spring of 1937 graphically portrays the way that this dynamic helped to shape power relationships within the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (stfu). During National Sharecroppers Week ofthat year, thousands of New Yorkers attended a meeting at the city's Mecca Temple and watched as three Arkansas sharecroppers, all organizers for the stfu, shared the stage widi senators Robert LaFollette and Robert Wagner and Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas. According to stfu cofounder and secretary H. L. Mitchell, one of the Arkansas sharecroppers stole the show. Mitchell arrived late at die meeting after LaFollette had already begun speaking, and he was chagrined to realize that "Myrde [Lawrence] was the center of attraction. She had her 'spit can' covered with bright pink paper, and was busily engaged in using it. The people down front who had the best view ofMyrde's performance were amused, laughing at the sharecropper woman, and paying no attention whatever to the speakers ." What was even worse, from Mitchell's perspective, was that Henrietta McGhee , an African American organizer, afterward told him diat she was "never so embarrassed in her life as by that old white woman making everyone think the union folks were all just like those Tobacco Road people they had heard about."2 When viewed historically, this scene, or Mitchell's account of it, reveals a universe of meaning involving culture, power, race, and gender—themes that are today so compelling to cultural historians of the South. The stfu had been founded in Tyronza, Arkansas, in 1 934 as a biracial effort to combat abuses stemming from local enforcement of the New Deal's Agricultural Adjustment Administration (aaa). Under the aaa program, tenants and sharecroppers legally ELIZABETH ANNE PAYNE retained their traditional share of the profits from crops they grew, but planters and aaa administrators in the cotton South often ignored this aspect of the national legislation. Owners frequendy violated their aaa contracts by demoting tenants and sharecroppers to wage earners or by evicting them from their homes. In 1937 the stfu was at its high tide, claiming a membership of 25,000 in six states. In its first three years ofexistence, the stfu, along with Dorothea Lange's photographs, introduced the nation to sharecroppers, and it became the chiefvehicle through which liberals like theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, civil libertarian Roger Baldwin, and activist Eleanor Roosevelt educated themselves on sharecroppers and rural poverty. In the imagination of many northern liberals, Arkansas as the wellspring of the tenant farmers' movement...


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