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What was the Sharecroppers' Strike of 1939 all about?
On the night of January 9, 1939, an exodus of black and white sharecroppers moved across southeast Missouri to camp along highways 60 and 61 south of Sikeston, Missouri. By midnight the "croppers," as they came to be known, had camps south of Sikeston where 60 and 61 cross, and soon there were others near Wyatt, Cairo (Ill), Charleston, Hayti, Morley, Lilbourn, Caruthersville and New Madrid. Their numbers have been estimated at somewhere in the vicinity of two-thousand. They were making a demonstration and taking a stand, and they were risking much by doing so. Their actions, which preceded the modern civil rights movement by nearly three decades, is one of the most significant stories of social unrest in the history of the state.

As part of the New Deal program of the 1930's American farmers were granted subsidies to cut farm production. The subsidy checks went to the landowners who were supposed to share a portion of the payment with their sharecroppers, people who performed the farm labor for a share of the farm profits. many planters, rather than share the subsidy payment, just kept the money or simply cancelled the arrangement with their sharecroppers and moved them off the land. The notification of the arrangement between owner and cropper was usually given in early January.

In January of 1939 many sharecroppers were notified that they would not have a place for the coming year. To protest the action, the Reverend Owen Whitfield, a charismatic African-American minister, helped organize the sharecroppers to demonstrate their plight to a regional if not national audience. They determined to move to the roadside of the most traveled highways in the center of the country, 60 and 61. The event caught local planters and officials by surprise. Photographs appeared in St. Louis and national newspapers, and soon the demonstration was front page news across the nation. Journalists, film crews, and photographers captured the drama of a moment which changed history in southeast Missouri.

Governor Lloyd Stark and the planters were convinced that the demonstration was the work of Communists and outside agitators and had the camps declared a public health hazard. The demonstrators were moved to isolated areas away from the highly visible highways. The strike faded. But, not its impact. Eleanor Roosevelt took up the cause of the demonstrators and wrote about it to a national audience. Whitfield and a sympathetic planter, Thad Snow, of Charleston, Missouri, met with the President. To head off another demonstration, Governor Stark met with Whitfield in 1940, providing an even wider audience for the issue.

The momentum initiated by the demonstrators established the groundwork for the first significant social service agencies in the Missouri bootheel. The largest of those was the Delmo Housing Corporation, ten communities for the displaced sharecroppers each containing decent homes with electricity, plumbing, storage space, garden space, and a porch. Started in the aftermath of the sharecroppers' demonstration, the Delmo Corporation continues to this day.

A recent video entitled "Oh Freedom After While: The Missouri Sharecropper Protest of 1939," tells the story of the protest. The video is available from
 
http:/www.newsreel.org/films/ohfreedom.htm
Center for Regional History
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Last modified   07/18/2009

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