Within the Deep South the STFU had encountered bloody resistance. Believing the Bootheel had a better political climate; Whitfield decided this was a better place for a massive demonstration. In1940, the union said conditions in the Bootheel were not worse than the rest of the cotton growing regions, but because the reaction was expected to be less violent.
After a series of meeting between Whitfield and the sharecroppers, a final assembly was held the First Negro Baptist Church in Sikeston. Some 350 croppers, mostly black, met and final plans were make for a roadside demonstration. It was to be a mass exodus from the land. Whitfield chose not to tell STFU headquarters in Memphis of his plans. The union leaders were as surprised as the citizens of the Bootheel.
If plans for a move to the highways became known before hand, Whitfield believed the authorities would try to stop it. So, the word spread quietly among the croppers about the upcoming protest without a mention of it leaking out. He also hoped the shock of the demonstration would be more dramatic thus attract more attention. The only outsider informed beforehand has the director of LaForge, Hans Baasch. Even his friend and advisor Thad Snow was uninformed until the eleventh hour.
On Sunday, January 8, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch carried newsman Sam Armstrong’s story about the coming demonstration set for Tuesday January 10. Whitfield leaked the papers’ this front page story with permission for an early printing. He seemed to have gauged the attitude of most Southeast Missourian as they reacted with shock when they read the story. They were unable to believe the croppers would carry out their threaten demonstration.
Plans were for the demonstration to start Wednesday morning January 10 the day the sharecroppers were required to be off the plantation they had worked for that year. Most of the participants followed the plans. However, several hundred started out after sundown the night before to spent the night on the highway. Early the next morning, motorists along U.S. Highways 60 and 61 were stunned to see the roadside lining up with broken down autos, old wagons, truck piled with bedding, pots and pans, wire chicken coops, and of course, the poorly clad croppers.
By noon, the Highway Patrol estimated 1,000 camped along the highways. The precise Number of individuals and families participating was impossible to count. Some counts make the number closer to 1,500. People were coming and going as they looked for friends and families. It was several day before authorities were able to locate and Number all the camps as the Number increased and decreased slightly daily.
Later the Highway Patrol reported a total of 1,307 people representing 330 families were living along the highways. The FBI probable had more accurate information when they reported there were 251 families comprising 1,161 individuals.
As Highways 60 and 61 crossed in Sikeston, it was the center of activity. The FBI recorded 13 camps on the 70 mile strip of Highway 61 between Sikeston and Hayti and the 38 miles on Highway 60 connecting Charleston and Sikeston. Where these highways crossed in Sikeston seemed to be the center of the activity.
Each of these camps varied in size a great deal. Several were small with the largest located in Mississippi and New Madrid counties that numbered several hundred. It was reported that on January16, the New Madrid County camp at Lilbourn had 291 people.
No efforts were made to hinder highway traffic or impede its activity in any way. Most of the demonstrators simply moved out of the way of traffic to settle on the side of the road. In most camps there was a stove, a few pieces of shabby furniture, pots and pans, some bedding, an occasionally dog, however, all were without permanent shelter of any kind.
At one time Mitchell reported 90 percent of the demonstrators were STFU members. Government investigators credited the STFU for organizing the event; however, many of the campers, they reported were unfamiliar with the organization. Not all the members of Whitfield’s church were union members; therefore it is likely, as they were also affected by the evictions surely they would join the demonstration. This government report set the Number of Negro campers at 90 to 95 percent.
Union member or not, the majority of the demonstrators did not have a place to live as they were evictees. Officials later told Roosevelt that many, while not union members had jointed the mass on the roadside because of dissatisfaction with working and living conditions.
Landlords led the press to believe that all would be forgiven if the demonstrators would return to the plantations, that there would be work of anyone desiring it. To the dissatisfied they saw only a future as day labors if they returned to the plantations working at menial jobs and living in the same shacks, and treated totally at the landlord’s discretion. They majority simply felt they would be unable to make a decedent living if they returned to the plantation.
Josephine Johnson of the Post-Dispatch on January 23, 1939 wrote that one large planter was greatly perturbed because the croppers wanted better conditions. He called it “something nearly as bad as sedition.”
Interviewers found many of the strikers, including both the evicted and those who had not, joined the movement on the highways in hopes of moving into a permanent home in a RSA project like LaForge where Whitfield lived. Many of the participations have been led to believe, or thought they had been promised if the government became aware of their situation, the FSA would establish a similar project for them like LaForge. During February of 1939, the manager of the LaForge Project, Hans Baasch received more than 10,000 applications for housing.
The local non-farms reaction to the demonstration was hostile. Local newspapers blamed the situation on outside agitators. As most of the ex-farm workers did not have written eviction notices, many newspapers suggest that the farmers had left, not because they were forced but under their own free well. They make light of the roadside situation saying they expected a life of guarantee luxury.
Area planters claimed that 90 percent of the croppers were non-resident of Missouri but transient from other states. Twenty-four landowners from New Madrid, Dunklin, Pemiscot, and Scott counties met at New Madrid on January 12. Prosecuting attorney J. V. Conran of New Madrid County presided passing a resolution calling for a public meeting and a FBI inquiry into the strike along with the affairs of Owen Whitfield and Hans Baasch.
Then on January 13, some 50 Mississippi County landowners met at the Charleston Courthouse passing a resolution requesting a full government investigation to determine the full extent of outside influences regarding the strike, also hinting at communist influences. This motion asked that all government and private relief be withheld so as not to encourage the movement by giving aid and assistance.
A common theme of the news story was a variation of the Sikeston Herald reporting. The good people of Sikeston had been good to the colored people. Therefore, it was unwise to blame the blacks as they had been misled by Union agitators that had been influence by those who are believed to be ‘fifth columnist.
Both Resolutions from the planters were sent to the Missouri governor, the two United State senators, congressmen representing the district, the Dies Committee on Un-American Actives, Vice-President Garner, and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace. Senator Harry Truman had the document printed on the Senate side and Orville Zimmerman putting them in the House Record, thus both resolutions was printed in the Congressional Record. Truman made no comment While Zimmerman made a long proclamation declaring the planters were not responsible in any way. That overzealous reporters looking for a good story had distorted the facts.
On the state level, government officials were equally unsympathetic with the demonstrators. State Senator James C. McDowell drove from Jefferson City to attend the meeting in Charleston. He saw it his duty to find out who was behind this damnable scheme. Then he blamed the CIO. As the Senator was one of the biggest planters in the area, his views may not have been entirely objective
Many local officials repeated the same theme as the Mississippi County planter’ resolution that government aid to the campers would be foolish, only encouraging them to demand more. Quoting a local county prosecutor, the New York Daily Worker on January 14, 1939, to give in to their demands encourages the croppers to demand more year after year.
Governor Lloyd C. Stark was convinced the roadside demonstration was the work of transient from outside the state. That a large Number of the blackss were town Negro’s that had been promised federal aid and individual farms of their own. Writing Henry Wallace demanding an investigation, he was sure, would show that those behind this un-American embarrassment would show a communist led conspiracy. This point of view was supported by most of Southeast Missouri planters.
The planters were sure at the FSA project at LaForge was “communist. When the project was being constructed in 1937, there was a general outspoken criticism of it. Orville Zimmerman, the Bootheel’s state representative reported he received editorials, letters, petitions, resolutions against the scheme, but not a word of support for it.
The landlords, incised by the picture being painted by some northern newspapers, claimed the demonstrators were not really evicted tenants but impressionable fools wanting federal money. This idea and example being set by the request and example came from a “nigger preacher, living on government pay. After all was Whitfield not living on the Far Security Administration Coop at LaForge?
The Red Cross did not recognize the roadside protest as falling under their mandate, thus they offered no aid. This situation, they claimed was a matter to be met by the state and federal governments. Red Cross mid-western director William Baxter later told the FBI that as their investigation indicated the croppers were not in want of shelter or foodstuff, thus no help from them was needed. That local communities and farm owners were able to help any demonstrator that required it.
In response to the planter request for an investigation, the FBI, on March 8, 1939, concluded the strike was spontaneous, simply an expression of indignation by outraged cropper. The STFU was not responsible or a sponsor of the demonstration. The planters hold a lot of the blame because of their apathy. The report concluded, the landlords underestimated the sharecroppers’ disaffection and misunderstood the situation.
Upon receiving the FBI report about the roadside protest, President Roosevelt suggest the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (FSCC) make available any supplies they had on hand, especially milk, eggs, butter, citrus fruits, meats, and cereals. The FSCC responded and made food supplies available. However, food distribution was put in the hands of state officials who declared as long as the croppers remained on the highway, no commodities would be delivered.
Up until March, the situation remained the same. An emergency subsistence arrant were offered, $2 per month ($32 in 20011 buying power), for one month available now and for three months with applications required each month. A request for National Guard tents was stopped by Louis Means the states adjutant-General. He told the War Department he had the situation in hand and not federal aid was needed.
Since the STFU had not been informed of the demonstration, they had not made plans for emergency relief. They claimed Whitfield telegraphed them at the start of the walkout; Mitchell and Butler were to keep out of the affair. Whitfield and the STFT leadership were at odd not only about the protest but also about the St. Louis Industrial Union Council, the city’s central CIO body.
Altogether the Union raised $3,293.56 for relief (about $45,000 in today’s money). Almost all of the money went directly to aid the campers with cash, food, clothing, and other supplies. With Union headquarters over an hour away from Sikeston, the center of the strike in Blytheville, Arkansas, supplies were show reaching the strikers.
The St. Louis Industrial Union Council (CIO) desperately tried to help the camper but their funds were low. They sent request to President Roosevelt ask him to have the War Department send tents to the Bootheel. Two CIO representatives, with a few items to distribute, stopped at camp near Charleston when almost immediately, to deputized planters threatened them with blackjacks, telling them to move on.
Student from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis were stopped from delivering foods and supplies. Deputy Sheriffs told them they relief would only make the situation worse.
With temperatures near freezing on Thursday night January 12, snow started falling leaving an inch and an half on the ground by morning. Please for the National Guard to supply tents still went unanswered.
Without tents, the croppers improvised the best they could. They used quilts for windbreakers, or sheets thrown over poles; oil drums became stoves, and corncobs or whatever was available became fuel.
Coverage of the demon station now drew reporters from across the nation. Representatives from governmental and privates agencies migrated to the scene. Officials from the AAA, the FSA, Social Security, the State Labor Department, the State Highway Patrol, the CIO, the STFU, the Red Cross and the Communist Party.
By week’s end, on orders from the President, National Guard truck were headed south loaded with field kitchens, tents, and assorted other supplies. They never arrived. State officials had removed the ugly unpleasant, and highly vision of failed economic plight, from the highways.
Friday, January, the State Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Parker walked through the campsites. He saw a lake of sanitary facilities and good drinking water. He decided they were a threat to public health and could possibly cause an outbreak’ of epidemic meningitis.
Using the county sheriffs and deputized citizen, the State Police began moving the campers for the roads. Some tried to return to their former employers, some became day worker, others simple left the area.
Campers choosing to remain in the demonstration were removed from the highway in 24 Highway Patrol truck. Whites and black were purposely placed in segregated camps. About 100 families, making up approximately, the largest group, were taken to the Bird's Point-New Madrid Spillway in New Madrid County. They were left on a 40 acre field not far from the LaForge Project. The area, later referred to by the campers, as Homeless Junction. It was a swampy uncleared region recently covered by the1937 flood, were there were no portable drinking water. All which suggest the removal was not for health reasons, but a elimination from public view.
One group of whites, were placed near the levee in Mississippi County near Dorena. One sizeable group was taken to the Sweet Home Baptist Church between Wyatt and Charleston. A later FBE report stated one group was placed in a Negro cabaret. Other groups of blacks were settled in an empty barns or shacks. The state police, government officials, and local newspapers openly referred to the demonstrators’ new homes concentrations camps.
Senator Harry Truman announced the demonstration was at the instigation of agitators claiming to represent the government. Governor Stark knew that if the FBI investigated they were find un-americium and communistic practices could be traced directly to some employees of the Farm Security Administration.
The politician and the public quickly forgot about the unfortunate demonstrators. If Gardner Jackson, the UCAPAWA, and the STFU had been more concerned with the fight against the planter that fighting each other, the outcome might have been different.
For a few years during the Great Depression President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts through the New Deal programs affected no rural American sector more than the rural South. The STFU attempted to serve as an advocate of these rural tenant farmers and wage laborers in the Bootheel. These groups were caught between the forces of chance brought by the New Deal programs designed to meet immediate economic. These plans however, did not address the long-term social problems of southern agriculture nor blunt the continuity forces of a discriminatory and often oppressive plantation agriculture system.
Government price controls and plow-up programs made changes in many aspects of southern agriculture. Yet peonage, an institutionalized form of debt slavery was to remain a fixed part of the plantation cotton agriculture for a few more years. This was especially true of attitudes.
By substituting tractors for mule power, it was possible to raise more cotton on more ground cheaper. In a 1931 comparison, an economist records of 36 Mississippi Delta tractor-powered plantations with 28 mule-powered farms. Using general purpose Farmall tractors for preparing the ground, and planting with four-roll equipment and cultivation. On the other test farm, mule’s power preformed the same operations. On average, using tractors it took 6.2hours and cost $3.90 power acres to plow, to bed plant and cultivate an acre of cotton. With a mule power, it averaged 43.1 hours and cost $5.91 per acres to this work.
While tractors help reduce the man hours, 136 hours, needed to produce, an acres of cotton. Field hands were still needed to hoe, and pick cotton. To do this with mule-powered, one-row equipment averaged 150 hours per acre. As more and more mechanical tools became available to the farmer, fewer and fewer man hours were required. Tractors, harvesters, and chemicals slowly added to the complete demise of the sharecropper system that replaced slavery after the Civil War.