Hidden History: How the New Deal Ripped Off Farmworkers and Blacks

The Great Depression – Part 5 Mean Things Happening

PBS (1993)

Film Review

While the National Recovery Administration, created in 1933, theoretically guaranteed workers the right to unionize, company bosses continued to fire (and shoot) employees who went on strike for the right to form unions.

In 1933 John L Lewis formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Unlike the American Federation of Labor (AFL), membership in the CIO was open to blacks, immigrants and communists (women continued to be shut out of the union movement until World War II).

For political reasons, the New Deal right to unionize didn’t extend to agricultural workers. The primary New Deal farm program was the Agriculture Adjustment Act, which gave plantation owners direct payments for destroying surplus cotton crops. Despite federal requirements that owners share their payments with tenant farmers* and sharecroppers,** they rarely did so.

Both approached socialist leader Norman Thomas, who helped them organize the Southern Tenant Farmers Association (STFA), which had 1,000 members by the end of 1935. Arkansas lawmakers responded by evicting tenant farmers and share croppers suspected of organizing, murdering black members and passing ordinances banning public gatherings.

Despite white terrorism, the STFA organized a successful cotton pickers strike (for higher wages) in 1935.

By 1935, the STFA had 25,000 members in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee and ongoing terrorist activities by whites began to receive national attention. The same year, FDR declined to meet with union leaders during a trip to Little Rock.***

In 1938, Congress finally passed legislation granting direct federal relief to tenant farmers and sharecroppers – plantation owners responded by evicting 251 families in order to keep the relief payments for themselves.


*A tenant farmer used his own seed and animals to cultivate an owner’s land and paid him 1/4 of his crop for this privilege.

**A sharecropper used the landowner’s seed and animals and paid him 1/2 of his crop for this privilege.

*** Aside from FDR’s inherent racism, southern tenant farmers and sharecoppers didn’t vote because they couldn’t afford the $1 poll tax. More importantly the President relied on the votes of southern Democrats to pass New Deal legislation.

Walden and Civil Disobedience

Walden and Civil Disobedience

By Henry David Thoreau

Penguin Classics (1983)

Introduction and Endnotes by Michael Meyer

Book Review

Self-described as a “mystic, transcendalist,* and natural philosopher to boot,” Thoreau published Civil Disobedience in 1849 and Walden in 1854. Both are works of social criticism. Surprisingly most of his critiques of mid-19th century American society ae still applicable to 21st century post industrial capitalism.

In Civil Disobedience, for example, he maintains that a “standing government” is as dangerous to true democracy as a “standing army.” He is particular critical of slavery and the war against Mexico (opposed by the majority of his contempories), which he describes as “the work of a few individuals using the standing government as their tool.”

He also asserts that voting is not enough when men of conscience oppose the “wickedness” government carries out in their name. He argues that people are obliged to transgress unjust laws “rather than waiting until we persuade the majority to amend them.” He adds that  [jail] “is the only house in a slave state that a free man can abide with honor.”

In July 1846 Thoreau was arrested for failing to pay his poll tax, owing to his refusal to recognize the authority of a government “which buys and sells men, women and children at the door of the senate house.” He only spent one night in jail, after an acquaintance “interfered” and paid his tax for him.

I was unaware, prior to reading Walden, that Thoreau also popularized the concept of voluntary poverty. The philosophy he elaborates in describing his two years in the woods at Walden Pond is highly critical of the upper middle class society he was born into. He observes that a “laboring man has no time for true integrity – no time for anything but to be a machine.”

He views his time at Walden Pond – where he built his own cabin and furniture and grew most of his food – as an experiment to help him reduce his life to the absolute basic necessities and the most expedient way of procuring.

He asserts the wealthy classes spend so much time cluttering their lives with useless luxuries that they lose their ability to think clearly about what they really believe him. He also decries the lack of freedom associated with the accumulation of material wealth: “Luxury enervates and destroys nations which have accumulated dross but can’t get rid of it . . . [they] have forged their own golden or silver fetters.”

He’s also high critical of what he describes as the “factory system” – which is “not meant to ensure mankind is well and honestly clad but for corporations to get enriched.”


*Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement that developed in the late 1820s and 1830s in the eastern region of the United States. The movement was a reaction to and protest against the general state of intellectualism and spirituality in American society.