Southern Tenant Farmers' Union

views updated May 23 2018


SOUTHERN TENANT FARMERS' UNION. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, which was intended to alleviate the economic fallout from the Great Depression, did not benefit all segments of society equally. To boost agricultural prices and, thus, farm incomes, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) paid landowners to take land out of production. Because landowners received the government's payments and because they controlled the local administration of the AAA, tenant farmers and sharecroppers received relatively little of this money and, worse, found themselves either out of work or transformed into wage laborers.

In 1934 Arkansas socialists Harry Leland Mitchell and Clay East tapped into the ensuing frustration and formed the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (STFU). The union sought to use peaceful means, such as lawsuits, speeches, and books and pamphlets to highlight income inequality in southern agriculture. STFU members protested their treatment by landowners and also the local institutions that they believed were responsible for their degraded economic condition, including local school boards, police departments, relief agencies, health agencies, the courts, and poll taxes. After some two years of recruitment and expansion into neighboring states, the STFU still represented highly localized interests. In 1937 it sought broader exposure through an association with the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packinghouse and Allied Workers of America, a CIO affiliate. Conflicts between the STFU and the union and factional fights within the STFU depleted its ranks and ultimately its ability to revive the local activities responsible for its initial organizational success.

The STFU was a reactionary response to economic hardships that southern farmers, particularly non-landowning farmers, faced during the Great Depression. Yet it left a lasting legacy. With its strong religious undertone, its integration of African Americans and women into its membership, and its nonviolent means, the STFU set the stage for the civil rights movement almost three decades later.


Auerbach, Jerold S. "Southern Tenant Farmers: Socialist Critics of the New Deal." Labor History 7 (1966): 3–18.

Dyson, Lowell K. "The Southern Tenant Farmers Union and Depression Politics." Political Science Quarterly 88 (1973): 230–252.

Grubbs, Donald H. Cry from the Cotton: The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union and the New Deal. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971.

Mitchell, H. L. "The Founding and Early History of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union." Arkansas Historical Quarterly 32 (1973): 342–369.

Naison, Mark D. "The Southern Tenants' Farmers' Union and the CIO." In "We Are All Leaders": The Alternative Unionism of the Early 1930s. Edited by Staughton Lynd. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.


See alsoAgriculture .

Tenant League

views updated May 14 2018

Tenant League. The Irish Tenant League was formed in 1850 to agitate for tenants' rights, in part to replace the repeal campaign. One objective was to extend the Ulster custom, which gave some protection over rents and evictions. The league offered support to sympathetic parliamentary candidates and organized petitions, but its tenants' rights bills made little progress. The Ulster supporters, who had feared an erosion of their own rights, soon parted company from the catholic south and the revival of agricultural prosperity took the edge off discontent. Gladstone's Land Act of 1870 conceded some of the rights claimed.

J. A. Cannon