South, Great Depression in the

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On the eve of the Great Depression the South was the poorest region in the United States, its per capita income scarcely 50 percent of the national figure. It was a poor rural one-crop society in which too many people chased too little farm income. It was the bastion of the open shop. It was rigidly segregated and African Americans were economically and politically powerless. The region's politics were dominated by a conservative alliance of county-seat elites, planters, and industrialists, largely immune to popular pressure because of their economic dominance and the restricted nature of the electorate. Planters and industrialists had a mutual interest in a surplus labor force, low wages, low taxes, and minimal government services.


The onset of the Depression merely confirmed the South's poverty. The collapse of world commodity prices and foreign markets devastated cotton and tobacco farmers. Overproduction meant that the cotton crop yielded $1.5 billion in 1929 but only $465 million in 1932. In Mississippi, times were described as "tough as jailhouse stew." On a single day in April 1932 one-quarter of the land in the state was sold at sheriff's sales. Total receipts for the cigarette tobacco crop in 1932 were one-third those of 1929. One tobacco county in North Carolina saw 3,500 foreclosures in one year on the county's 5,280 farms. In addition, in 1930 drought ravaged a number of states.

For the 8.5 million tenants and sharecroppers, 3 million of whom were black, the onset of the Depression reinforced their hopelessness and dependency. As one black Georgian wryly observed, "Most blacks did not even know the Great Depression had come. They had always been poor and only thought the whites were catching up." The cash incomes of black families rarely reached $100 a year.

Southern industries were just as vulnerable. Textiles firms had moved to the southern Piedmont region for lower labor costs in the 1920s, but too many small firms sought to grab a slice of a highly competitive market by expanding production at ever lower prices and lower wages. The same was true of coal in northern Alabama, the lumber industry, and oil. In Birmingham, where U.S. Steel paid its workers between ten and fifteen cents an hour, 25,000 of the city's workforce of 108,000 were out of work and most of the remainder were employed only part-time. The city had abolished its welfare department in the 1920s. Private charity, the community chest, could not meet Birmingham's welfare needs: It had helped eight hundred families in 1929; by 1932 it struggled to help nine thousand.

Revenue-starved state and local governments responded to the Depression with retrenchment: slashing government spending and services and turning to sales taxes to offset plunging income from property taxes. For the rural and industrial poor there was little to do other than endure. Sharecroppers, unable to move from the countryside to urban jobs, could only bargain by leaving one landlord and working for another, and 40 percent of Mississippi tenants did so in 1930. Occasionally desperation drove the poor to violence or radicalism: In Arkansas they threatened to loot food stores; in Alabama they joined a Communistorganized sharecroppers union; in the Piedmont they struck the textile mills in 1929 and 1931; in Atlanta they joined Unemployed Leagues. Violent repression met these efforts and simply emphasized the powerlessness of the "have-nots" in the segregated South.


What impact did the New Deal have on the region that Franklin Roosevelt described as the nation's number one economic problem? The New Deal rescued cotton and tobacco farmers. North Carolina senator Josiah Bailey wrote in December 1933, "Eastern North Carolina, a very large section devoted to agriculture has been prostrated for five years. This year the people are really prosperous . . . with one accord they give the credit to the President." A Mississippi banker told Turner Catledge in 1935 about his county's cotton farmers, "I can show you papers in our current portfolio that had been cancelled as uncollectable years ago. People come in here and ask to pay back interest on notes we literally have to fish out of the waste basket." The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) established the mechanisms—production control, price-support loans, and ample credit that would enable farmers who managed to stay on the land to work in a relatively risk-free environment and to enjoy prosperity when it returned during World War II. The AAA also created the political processes whereby organized commodity groups could guarantee favorable government responses in the future. As William Faulkner observed, "Our economy is not agricultural any longer. Our economy is the federal government. We no longer farm now in Mississippi cotton fields. We farm now in Washington corridors and Congressional committee rooms."

The result was what Gavin Wright described as a "planter's heaven." Tenants and sharecroppers lost out both in the allocation of payments under the production control programs and in the operation of those programs by planter-dominated local committees. The worst abuses sparked the rise of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union in the harsh Arkansas Delta and an abortive effort by New Deal radicals in Washington to interpret the cotton contract to protect the tenants. Ultimately the New Deal launched a tenant-purchase and resettlement program for poor southern farmers. But the harsh reality was that the New Deal was a step on the road to the mechanization of southern agriculture and the displacement of tenant farmers. The New Deal, through the rental and benefit payments of the AAA, gave the planters the capital to buy tractors and mechanize the pre-harvest cotton production. Acreage reduction gave them the excuse to evict tenants. They could replace them with hired laborers. No longer did planters have to support tenants all year round to ensure that they had an adequate labor force for the still unmechanized harvesting. Now New Deal welfare programs could support the surplus labor force through the winter and early summer. Then, with the assistance of sympathetic relief administrators, the planters could simply hire that labor for the harvest. This process of mechanization was at an early stage in the 1930s. Few planters in 1940 in Mississippi owned tractors. More people left the land in the 1920s and after 1940 than during the 1930s. High prices and labor shortages during World War II were what gave planters the means and the incentive to bring in the cotton harvester. After World War II the revolution in agricultural chemistry enabled farmers to dispense with hired labor to eradicate weeds and defoliate cotton plants.

New Deal unemployment relief, works programs, and Social Security engineered a welfare revolution in the South. Aid from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1932 had forced southern states, ensconced in the old Poor Law traditions of county responsibility, to adopt some form of welfare organization. But it was Harry Hopkins's Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) that transformed relief provision in the South. Ninety percent of relief spending under FERA in the region was provided by federal money, compared to 62 percent in the rest of the country. To qualify for such aid, states had to professionalize their welfare organizations. As Michael Holmes noted, "Many counties in Georgia that had never seen a social worker now had one permanently stationed within their borders." Later, to qualify for federal matching funds for categorical assistance to the old, the blind, and dependent children, southern states had to maintain that revolution in professionalism. Southern cities established departments of public welfare for the first time. Southern states were forced to develop unemployment compensation programs. Old-age insurance became a federal responsibility.

But local administration and joint federal-state responsibility lessened the impact of the welfare revolution. It was difficult to find qualified staff to run relief programs, especially as local politicians objected to women and nonpartisan appointments. Opposition from planters and employer elite to the whole idea of relief made state legislatures reluctant to make appropriations or to take over the burden of the able-unemployed, who did not get Works Progress Administration (WPA) jobs after 1935. Everywhere FERA and WPA operations were curtailed at harvest time to ensure the availability of as large a labor force as possible for cotton picking.

The federal-state operation of Social Security not only meant that states varied considerably in the generosity of the benefits they offered and the conditions they imposed on recipients, it also meant that many southern states could scarcely afford to participate in the system at all. Planters lobbied to keep benefits low: They feared that an alternative to their own paternalist but minimal in-kind benefits would loosen their control of their tenants. Poverty-stricken Mississippi was the last state in the union to enter the Aid to Dependent Children program. The principle of matching funds in general meant that poor southern states received less per capita from New Deal spending than any other region.


New Deal industrial policy did little to solve the problems of southern industries in the short term. Cotton textile executives were so desperate to curb overproduction that they conceded the elimination of child labor and a $12-per-week minimum wage in return for the National Recovery Administration (NRA) code restricting the hours that mills could operate. When the Supreme Court ended the NRA in 1935 the industry lobbied, like the lumber industry, for legislation to perpetuate price and production controls, but failed. Southern coal operators, fearing wage rises and unionization, were less enthusiastic. Tobacco manufacturers, already operating as an oligopoly, resisted NRA codes until 1935, just before the NRA collapsed. The New Deal simply did not solve the problems of excessive production in southern industry. It would take dramatically rising demand and profits in World War II to absorb that production and to enable consolidation and integration in, for example, the textile industry, where larger firms could finally buy out smaller mills.

What the New Deal did do was to stimulate worker militancy. Inspired by section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act, twenty thousand Alabama coal miners joined the United Mine Workers in 1933 and 1934. In a massive explosion of frustration, Piedmont textile workers joined the moribund United Textile Workers, forcing their leaders into a premature strike in September 1934. In 1937 and 1938, the Textile Workers' Organizing Committee attempted to unionize the industry under the banner of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Rubber workers in Gadsden, Alabama, made repeated efforts to unionize in the face of employer violence. Steelworkers in Birmingham unionized the Tennessee Coal and Iron subsidiary of U.S. Steel.

But determined protest was not enough. Nor could the new federal protections always help. The prospect of rapidly filling order books might persuade U.S. Steel to sign a union contract in 1937 and force their southern subsidiaries to do likewise, but other steel employees in Birmingham saw no need to follow. The final employer there to sign a union contract did so in 1974. In textiles, employers had no incentive to concede to union demands in 1934 when they already had excess capacity in stock, or in 1937 and 1938 when recession once again gripped the industry. As before, where employers were determined to resist they could utilize local sentiment to defeat the unions, using the local press, vigilante strikebreakers, and sympathetic law enforcement officers. In the South, labor was too politically powerless to impose its will on local sheriffs, state legislatures, and state governors. Despite the 1935 Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act), traditional anti-union tactics by employers would go unchecked, and neither rank and file militancy nor federal law could break down the longstanding patterns of worker dependency in labor relations.

Nevertheless, Gavin Wright has argued that "the economic underpinnings and social glue that had kept the regional economy isolated were no longer present in 1940." The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, despite its temporary provision of regional wage differentials, confirmed the trends of the NRA and meant that employers at the end of the 1930s and in World War II could no longer quarantine the low-wage economy of the South from national economic forces.

New Deal programs did modernize the infrastructure of the South. They rescued southern education: Relief programs, the National Youth Administration, and works programs paid teachers and students, and built and repaired schools and colleges at a time when southern governments had to slash school spending. The New Deal built and resurfaced thousands of miles of roads, and built and improved port facilities and airports. In the southern cities, New Deal programs built the capital projects that private enterprise had built in the northern cities a generation earlier. Above all, the New Deal provided cheap power and easy credit: The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Rural Electrification Administration started the electrification of southern farms and provided abundant power and water for southern industry. The Reconstruction Finance Corporation made credit available to a new generation of regional entrepreneurs anxious to capture government contracts and to attract outside investment.


Nevertheless, in 1940 the South was still a poor, rural, one-crop region, wedded to low wages and the open shop, in which African Americans were rigidly segregated and disfranchised. But a new generation of southerners had ambitious plans to reform and modernize the region from the bottom up. Southerners, such as Aubrey Williams, Clark Foreman, and Clifford Durr, who served in Washington in New Deal agencies, were radicalized on racial and economic issues: They saw full-scale rural poverty programs, unionization, and the extension of Social Security and political democracy to African Americans as the key to the development of mass purchasing power in the South. Newly elected congressman, such as John Sparkman and Albert Gore, Sr., saw the TVA as the model of what the federal government could do to transform not merely a river valley but a whole region through infrastructure investment and aid for education and health. African Americans were segregated in New Deal programs, discriminated against in the distribution of benefits and jobs, and, as farm laborers and domestic servants, disproportionately excluded from Social Security. But they received more than they had ever had before from the federal government and more than they would have received from white state governments. Black leaders saw how the federal government had intervened in the region's economy and, rightly, as it turned out, believed that the federal government could in the future intervene in the region's race relations.

There emerged, therefore, a loose pro-New Deal coalition of liberal politicians, union organizers, students, Communist Party members, and black leaders committed to the extension of political and economic democracy in the South. This alliance manifested itself in the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, the election of TVA liberals to Congress, the campaign to abolish the poll-tax, and membership campaigns and legal struggles by the NAACP.

Conservatives had an alternative top-down vision for modernizing the South. They believed that a low tax and anti-union environment would attract outside investment. Southern political leaders had been enthusiastic for the New Deal in the emergency of 1933, immensely grateful for the relief that Roosevelt brought to their desperate constituents. They remained fervent supporters of farm programs and measures to offset the power of northeastern financial interests. Many were personally loyal to Roosevelt and strong supporters of pro-British intervention in World War II. But the non-emergency direction of the New Deal after 1936 troubled them. More New Deal benefits seemed to be going to northern urban states. In addition, New Deal rural credit and labor policies seemed to undermine the traditional power of county seat elites: They disturbed the traditional patterns of deference and dependence between landlord and tenant, and employer and worker. Above all, conservatives feared that the New Deal, catering to newly Democratic black voters in the North, would threaten traditional patterns of white supremacy in the South.

Southern Democrats therefore joined Republicans after 1938 to form a bipartisan conservative coalition to thwart any significant expansion of the New Deal for the next quarter of a century. A casualty of this process in the short run were the ambitious plans of southern New Dealers to tackle rural poverty, unionize southern workers, and enfranchise African Americans. Instead, southern political leaders ensured that when the region modernized, kick-started into self-sustaining economic growth by federal defense spending during the war and after, the modernization strategy was a conservative one sustaining low-wage, open shop industries and traditional patterns of race relations.



Biles, Roger. The South and the New Deal. 1994.

Daniel, Pete. Breaking the Land: The Transformation ofCotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880. 1985.

Kirby, Jack Temple. Rural Worlds Lost: The AmericanSouth, 1920–1960. 1982.

Smith, Douglas L. The New Deal and the Urban South: TheAdvancement of a Southern Urban Consciousness During the Depression Decade. 1988.

Wright, Gavin. Old South, New South: Revolution in theSouthern Economy since the Civil War. 1984.

Tony Badger

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