Union Meeting. An unidentified woman and Sylvia Lawrence read the Union Meeting. An unidentified woman and Sylvia Lawrence read the "Sharecroppers' Voice". Photo: Louise Boyle/Kheel Center/Cropped and banner added to original/licensed under CC 2.0, linked at the bottom of article

The Alabama Sharecroppers’ Union was one of the most impressive social movements in 20th century America, writes Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

After slavery ended, many black people in the Southern States became sharecroppers. This meant that they would farm a patch of land, and the proceeds from what they grew would be split between themselves and their landlords.

Yet the real heart of the system was debt. The earnings of the sharecroppers were so close to the breadline that they would require advances of food from the landlords to get through the winter, along with farming equipment which would be supplied on credit. These advances would be deducted with interest from the sharecroppers’ share of the farm’s proceeds.

The landowners were known for their sharp practices when it came to calculating who was owed what. Sometimes they would send their wives to do the negotiations. That way, if a sharecropper objected to the landowners’ calculations, he could be accused of insulting a white woman and thus be made vulnerable to arrest or violent mob attacks.

Between 1931 and 1935 membership of the Sharecroppers’ Union grew from nothing to 8,000. At their core were people who were involved with the Communist Party. This all happened in a period in which the major trade unions bureaucracies in Alabama were fairly uninterested in organising black workers, and in which the Alabama National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was fairly uninterested in organising beyond the small black middle class.

The Sharecroppers’ Union was a radical intrusion into public life by those who were not only oppressed by the prevailing order, but also excluded from the official opposition. It was in this same period that 1500 black women laundry workers came out on strike in the State Capital Birmingham, despite having no support from the official Labour Movement.

The activists in the Sharecroppers’ Union were nearly all armed, for the simple reason that they had to be.

In 1930s Alabama, the spread of trade unionism wasn’t countered through PowerPoint presentations urging people to raise their grievances with the employee forum. Police violence, armed “private detective” agencies, and Klan and Klan-like organisations were very much the order of the day – especially when it came to black trade unionism. Throughout the decade, various of their members were sent to prison for meeting such repression with an armed response.

Their big fight was actually provoked by a New Deal Initiative. The Agricultural Adjustment Act gave cash to the owners of agricultural land in return for them reducing the acreage under cultivation.

The landlords decided to obtain these incentives by evicting lots of sharecroppers and rehiring them as super cheap labourers to work on their own estates. In almost every area the SCU won big wage rises for these labourers despite savage repression.

By the latter part of the decade the Communist Party shifted towards a popular front strategy, which on the one hand meant a greater focus on alliances with white trade unionists and liberals, and on the other meant a focus on trying to influence the NAACP rather than trying to compete with it.

This meant a shift in focus and resources away from the Sharecroppers’ Union, which itself was dissolved into the bigger and less radical Agricultural Workers’ Union. The NAACP, for its part, began seeking to organise on a more popular and class-bound basis in order to counter the perceived threat of the radical left.

If we fast-forward 20 years, the dominant narrative of the Montgomery Bus Boycott has a certain fairytale-like quality about it. Rosa Parks, a simple seamstress, refused to give up her seat and then the people, inspired by some top-quality pulpit oratory struck.

It is sometimes forgotten that Rosa Parks was a seasoned activist who was knowingly participating in a co-ordinated plan. And what, I think, is forgotten too is the role of radical black trade unionism in the depression era, which massively expanded the social breadth of black political organisation – and which laid some of the groundwork for the year-long boycott which brought the Montgomery bus companies to their knees.

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Reuben Bard-Rosenberg

Reuben Bard-Rosenberg is a socialist activist and radical folk music promoter.