- The Rise and Fall of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in Arkansas by James D. Ross
As the fiftieth anniversary of Donald H. Grubbs's Cry from the Cotton: The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and the New Deal (Chapel Hill, 1971) draws near, James D. Ross Jr. offers a new take on the sharecropper uprising that—Ross asserts—complements and slightly revises, but does not replace, the work of Grubbs or a later interpretation by Pete Daniel. Ross contends that previous tellings have oversimplified the union's identity and origin story with competing caricatures of either forward-thinking leftists fighting for racial and human equality or forces of reaction fighting to conserve a customary political economy. Neither interpretation captures the complete picture, because each fails to consider "the views of the sharecroppers and the tenant farmers" who actually composed the union (p. 4).
Ross's five short thematic chapters cover the lifetime of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (STFU) from 1934 to 1945, with most of the focus on its crucial formative period. Chapter 1 introduces the sorry tale of late-nineteenth-century southern cotton and its deleterious hold on the Arkansas Delta going into the Great Depression. Chapter 2 provides background for the union's radical milieu, with detailed descriptions of 1930s socialist-communist doctrinal disputes and a surprising amount of biography of leaders near (H. L. Mitchell), far (Norman Thomas), and farther (Henry Wallace). Chapter 3 covers the founding moment, acknowledging the role played by both elite actors and ordinary people. The very founding of the union and its maintenance thereafter were fraught with the crippling white supremacy of some of its white leaders and members. Chapter 4 introduces the promised voices of the union's ordinary members through the desperate letters they sent to the union's headquarters in Tyronza, Arkansas, and later Memphis, Tennessee. The letters reveal hungry, destitute people suffering the collapse of the only economic order with which they were familiar. Ross argues that the gut-wrenching excerpts he provides from about three dozen letter writers represent the typical concerns of most members. For Ross, the letters show that the members, far from being ideologues, were pragmatic people trying to find their children's next meal. They wanted work as sharecroppers; they believed the planters owed them a share of the government's crop reduction payments; they wanted to avoid the social slippage they saw as planters evicted tenants and hired day laborers; they frequently mentioned the ultimate goal of owning their own land. Chapter 5 seeks to explain the union's collapse by focusing on its own frailty. Ross acknowledges that externals—violence, official oppression, and mechanization—defeated the union, but he still pointedly dissects the union's internal weaknesses.
His thesis is simple. The racial beliefs and practices of white STFU members and leaders doomed the effort. Where others have portrayed the STFU as another bright moment in the southern Left's pantheon of principled defeats, Ross sees the union as an ineffective organization whose ideologically oriented leadership failed to deliver what its members actually wanted: short-term emergency relief, the ability to continue cotton sharecropping under less [End Page 488] brutal conditions, and, ultimately, sufficient incomes to afford landownership. While Ross acknowledges the STFU's abstract challenge to Jim Crow, he also emphasizes that its white leaders and members manifested an everyday practice of white dominance, rejecting African American members' calls for equity and inclusion in decision-making. This, of course, mortally wounded any hope of solidarity.
This work will not replace that of Grubbs or Daniel on the STFU. Nevertheless, it is a helpful companion to both as well as to later writings on the topic. As promised, Ross brings the tenant farmers back into the history of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and reminds southern historians to see what is there, not what they wish to see.