Revolt Among the Sharecroppers is a brief and convincing first-person account on the effects of the 1930s Depression and a dramatic story of the impact of New Deal on rural life of the Southern labor. The book was originally published in 1936 as a rural studies research pamphlet by Howard Kester. In 1969, it was reprinted by Arno Press in their American Negro Series. Within a year, the book was sold out and not printed again.
Alexander Lichtenstein, a lecturer in University of Tennessee took the initiative of reissuing the book in 1997, in realization of its value as a historical piece of research. This re-established a significant political and social document of the early twentieth century. The book does not only enhance the understanding of modern generations on the importance of social movements but also asserts that the contemporary social gap between the social classes needs to be addressed by just political economy (Lichtenstein).
Revolt Among the Sharecroppers by Howard Kester discusses the era of 1930s when government intervention was prevalent in the private sector. It was a time when the lower social classes were exploited by using their needs and poverty. The book is not only a historical account, but also provides an analytical approach and a research-oriented viewpoint to the scenario. Howard Kester has examined the 1930s as an epoch of a critical social movement that was launched to safeguard the individual and social rights of the common Southerners, the sharecroppers and tenant farmers.
The essay analyzes the following aspects of Howard Kester's Revolt Among the Sharecroppers:
Impact of Agricultural Adjustment Act on tenant farmers and sharecroppers of the South
The birth of Southern Tenant Farmers Union in consequence
Challenges faced by the Union in uplifting the tenant farmers and sharecroppers of the South during the era of Great Depression.
Analysis of the Book
The reissued version of Revolt Among the Sharecroppers in 1997 provides an insight to the reformers of the era as humanitarians that served a social and moral cause to constructively provide direction to the struggle of the sharecroppers and tenant farmers against coercion. The revolutionary socialism of these farmers' union was historically notable in the Arkansas Delta during the period from 1934 to 1936.
Economic and social condition of Southern sharecroppers
Sharecroppers of the South were under a constant life endangerment from the landlords and plantation owners who attempted to threaten each one that rose for his rights. An open protest was next to impossible. Despite the odds and in defiance of the perils, civil rights were, "one thing worth living for the sharecroppers, for it was the hope of the people, of all the enslaved sharecroppers everywhere in the South." (Kester, 1936)
The impoverished black and white sharecroppers were ready to jeopardize their lives in order to put an end to domination since sharecropping eventually left them empty handed. "The sharecropper of today is no more literate, no wealthier, no more cultured, no more privileged than was his grandfather of fifty years ago." (Kester, 1936)
Apparently, the crops yielded great profits, but they were not fairly shared with the sharecroppers. Howard Kester states, "There have been enormous profits in cotton, yet the tenant farmers' share has been so small that he must struggle desperately to keep body and soul together. Hope, ambition, and incentive have through the years been killed in those who till the soil." (Kester, 1936)
It is profoundly explained in the book what it really meant to be a sharecropper of the 1930s South; the plight that led to the political and social realization of the underprivileged rural Southerners. The ringing of plantation bell symbolized oppression on part of the elite class on the lowers and in turn their helplessness on the issue. Additionally, racial tyranny was also supplementing social coercion. The author mentions, "The tone which the bell gives out may inspire the stranger in the cotton country toward reverential thinking for somehow a ringing bell reminds one of God and cathedrals and a man's eternal quest for truth and justice." (Kester, 1936)
Additionally, these sharecroppers were neither in a socially presentable condition, nor in an economically sound state. Underfed and overburdened physiques, inadequate housing and clothing, illiteracy and above all, lack of proper drinking water were common with the sharecroppers. There was neither safety for their families nor due time for them to devote to their domestic life. This was profuse with the blacks who were additionally suffering economic exploitation. Kester bears testimony, "I have seen a two-week-old baby wrapped in quilts, lying in a furrow while the mother worked the cotton. I have seen mothers ready for child birth, still in the fields pulling at the soft white fiber." (Kester, 1936)
The plantation owners and landlords exercised a legal authority to usurp the due privileges of the sharecroppers and be legally exempt from any punishment for the deed whatsoever. They ironically considered the hardworking tenant farmers indolent, inefficient, and inconsiderate and ill bred.
The rise of the sharecroppers and AAA
The never-improving plight of the sharecroppers inevitably gave rise to the sharecroppers' protest against their landlords. The workers believed that a seventy-year-old labor to improve their lives and break free from slavery had not got them in any better position. A generation had passed by in unrelenting years of destitution that only intensified the predominant misery of the black and white sharecroppers alike.
Nevertheless, the continuing buildup of bitterness and resolve convinced them that their plight was not a Divine ordainment, but a misdeed of their superiors against which they should stand for the betterment of their forthcoming generations.
In the same era, the federal government promulgated the Agricultural Adjustment Act under which policies were framed to further exploit the sharecroppers and benefit the plantation owners. This deepened the misery of the southern tenant farmers, but to their advantage, turned out to be the turning point.
Enforcement of the Agricultural Adjustment Act and the policies subsequent thereto were the height of the long-borne inflictions. The sharecroppers, at this stage, took the decision to openly fight the war that they had been struggling for in the dark, thus putting an end to their destitution, ailment, illiteracy and slavery.
For the first time in Arkansas, the sharecroppers made a non-violent and modest declaration to their landowners for meeting their demands. Their appeal stated:
We propose a model contract providing the following: Adequate cash furnished during the farming season at a legal rate of interest, with privileges of trading where we please. Pay at prevailing wages for all improvements made on the property of the owner. Decent houses for each family, with use of certain portion of the land rent-free, for the purpose of growing foodstuffs for our families and livestock. We need access to woodlands to secure fuel for our use and a wagon and team to haul it with. We need the right to sell our cotton at market prices and to whom we please." (Kester, 1936)
This struggle was a crusade for liberation and equality to the Southern sharecroppers. However, the landowners took it as a rebel and a threat to them. They accused the organizing sharecroppers for disrespecting them and causing turmoil among their social class. Upon realizing that their peaceful efforts to silence the sharecroppers were to no effect, the plantation owners and landlords made the destruction of this "voice" their objective, by hook or by crook.
Challenges faced by the Southern Tenant Farmers Union upon its inception
The Southern Tenant Farmers Union officially came into being in 1934 with the basic purpose to eradicate political, economic, and social exploitation of the lower-middle class sharecroppers. The Communist and Socialist Parties and the NAACP assisted the struggle of the union by virtue of its socialist agenda. The Southern Tenant Farmers Union strove to eliminate persecution, encourage civilians' rights for Afro-Americans, safeguard economic rights for all sharecroppers and establish labor unions for workers belonging to the mining and textile profession.
However, there were three major areas of divergence that caused problems for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union:
Unease and color bar issue in building interracial bonds
Embittered partisan conflict among and within socialists and communists engaged in leading sharecroppers
The predestined resolution to integrate forces with the national labor movement in order to build unions related to the industrial sector.
However, the organization collapsed when the blacks migrated in 1930s form the fields. At this point of time, the union could not withstand the loss caused by the splitting of the sharecroppers into blacks and whites. Each of the two sharecroppers started to make decisions on the basis of their own judgments and individual interests.
The role of Howard Kester in politicizing the impoverished whites and blacks was noteworthy at this stage through his writings. From the perspective of interracial integration, unionism, grassroots socialism and religious radicalism, Kester occupied a key position for the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, which was advantageous as well as damaging. Though Revolt…
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