Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (STFU)

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As the Great Depression intensified by 1933, the plight of southern tenant farmers and sharecroppers worsened. Barely eking out a living for their families, tenant farmers and sharecroppers looked to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal for relief. Initially, the New Deal addressed the agricultural crisis by implementing the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act, which was designed to limit farm production by paying farmers not to plant certain crops, such as cotton. Although the intent of the law was to help all farmers, landowners took the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) subsidies and used them however they wanted, often without consideration for the needs of their tenants or sharecroppers. Even when Jerome Frank and other AAA legal administrators tried to force southern landowners to at least retain their tenants for more than one year, the situation did not change. Instead, AAA director Chester Davis fired the "Frank group" and sustained the landowners' practices.

Facing increasing economic pressures, a group of black and white tenant farmers met in the delta town of Tyronza, Arkansas, and organized the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (STFU) in July 1934, under the leadership of H. L. Mitchell, a socialist and former sharecropper, and H. Clay East. Committed to helping tenant farmers, the STFU faced numerous problems, the most serious of which was the southern landowner. Although landowners initially did not take the STFU seriously, their attitudes changed when significant numbers of southern tenant farmers began to join the union. Landowners quickly implemented policies designed to intimidate and frighten the membership. Violence was used to break up STFU meetings, members were beaten, and meeting places were burned down. Despite the threats and violence, the union grew and spread to other states, including Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Texas. The STFU called strikes in 1935 and 1936 over such issues as cotton pickers' wages. In Earle, Arkansas, landowner violence against the union caught the nation's attention as local police opened fire in a church where STFU members were meeting. Further violence occurred as mobs organized to attack union members. In 1939, the STFU became involved in the famous Missouri roadside demonstration, designed to protest the AAA's refusal to help sharecroppers and led by Reverend Owen Whitfield, former sharecropper and STFU vice president.

By January 1937 the STFU claimed over thirty thousand members. In spring 1936, the La Follette congressional committee had begun investigating violations of basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution, certainly apropos of what the tenant farmers faced in the South. The leadership of the union, amid tensions and debate, decided to became a subsidiary of the Congress of Industrial Organizations' United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America in July 1937. This move, along with the union's identification with socialism (given its leadership and Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas's open support for the group) and some activities that were seen as sympathetic to Communists, eventually contributed to the union's decline. Remnants of the STFU were absorbed by the American Federation of Labor in the 1940s.

In spite of its decline, the STFU did accomplish more than it is given credit for. The union coalesced national attention on the plight of southern tenant farmers and sharecroppers, while exposing the violence southern landowners often used in dealing with their tenants. If nothing else, the STFU demonstrated the growing need for the federal government to step in and protect the rights of its poorest citizens.



Grubb, Donald. Cry From the Cotton: The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and the New Deal. 1971.

Mitchell, H. L. "The Founding and Early History of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union." Arkansas Historical Quarterly 32, no. 4 (1973): 342–369.

Tinall, George B. The Emergence of the New South. 1967.

Michael V. Namorato