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.