- Remaking the Rural South: Interracialism, Christian Socialism, and Cooperative Farming in Jim Crow Mississippiby Robert Hunt Ferguson
Remaking the Rural South: Interracialism, Christian Socialism, and Cooperative Farming in Jim Crow Mississippitells the story of Delta Cooperative Farm and its related effort, Providence Farm: interracial, Christian, socialist [End Page 733]farming communities founded in Mississippi in the 1930s. "[I]mplausible" as these communities may have been, existing as they did "smack-dab" in the rural Jim Crow South, Robert Hunt Ferguson maintains that they were "much more than nearly forgotten curiosities" (p. 1). Rather, the existence of Delta Cooperative and Providence Farms reveals that the rural poor were long engaged in labor and civil rights activism, complicating the traditional narrative. In telling this story, Remaking the Rural Southcontributes to the history of American intentional communities, American labor history, American religious history, and the history of the long civil rights movement.
Founded in 1936, Delta Cooperative Farm brought together black and white sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta in a communitarian vision for economic justice. The farm's founders rooted their bold experiment in the traditions of American socialism and in Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian realism, joining "southern dreamers" in testing imaginative solutions for the besetting problems facing a South reeling from the Great Depression and choked by Jim Crow (p. 12). At Delta Cooperative and Providence Farms, dozens of black and white sharecroppers labored alongside one another, built homes, formed relationships, attended Christian worship services, and even hosted social events, though these remained segregated. Volunteers came and worked, as prominent Americans such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Cordell Hull, and William Alexander Percy praised the farms' egalitarian vision.
But the endeavor was constrained from the outset. Poor soil and torrential rains made farming difficult. Residents faced near constant hostility from neighbors. Divisions also existed within the farms, particularly over race and power. Problematically, the founding of the interracial Delta Cooperative Farm was decidedly not interracial, illustrating, in Ferguson's words, "the contradictions implicit" in the project (p. 43). The white founders retained decision-making power, leading, as early as 1936, to black residents holding an "'indignation meeting'" (p. 71). In 1938 Providence Farm was founded nearby in an effort to transition residents into a fresh start. Though Providence was more democratic and focused on black self-help, old issues lingered. Moreover, the leveling effects of the Great Depression had dissipated (p. 92). As Ferguson argues, the 1930s presented "a moment of imagined possibility when heady ideas … were put into practice" (p. 2). That moment proved short-lived.
Delta Cooperative Farm disbanded in 1942, and Providence Farm followed in 1956, fewer than twenty years after its founding. Ferguson claims "that to focus on strict interpretations of success and failure is to miss the point entirely," suggesting that the larger significance is in the fact that "the farms existed at all" (p. 15). While certainly the existence of the farms is remarkable, their failure is actually quite significant. Understanding why Delta Cooperative and Providence Farms failed when other radical communities endured can offer insight into the limits and possibilities of southern activism. For instance, it seems that racial paternalism doomed the farms from the start. In perpetuating segregation, in sidelining black voices, and in keeping power with white men, the project lacked the political, social, and theological power the civil rights movement later harnessed. When black residents did assert their interests in the later years of Providence Farm, they pursued voter registration, public health initiatives, [End Page 734]and education, experiencing success and "empowerment" (p. 4). The lesson is clear: work for collective change in the South must center marginalized voices.
In this point, Remaking the Rural South, though a story of one narrow effort, brings an important historical case to bear on the still pressing questions of racial and economic justice in the U.S. South. Readers should take heed in case another moment...