Alabama Sharecroppers Union
The Alabama Sharecroppers Union (ASU), which existed from 1931 to 1936, was organized by laborers in the state to both raise prices and wages that were suppressed by larger planters in the region and reduce inequities in New Deal agricultural programs. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) was largely in charge of the administration of the union, but numerous autonomous branches, called locals, existed throughout the region. The ASU was part of a larger wave of sharecropper and tenant farmer organizing in the South. Although leaders sought to create a biracial organization, the union was led and constituted only by Alabama blacks. As an openly communist organization, the Sharecroppers Union drew strong opposition from both white supremacists and anti-communists on the left and right.
The union’s roots lay in the Communist Party’s attempts to organize workers of all kinds in the Birmingham industrial district. The party initially focused upon organizing white steel workers and small farmers in northern Alabama. That effort culminated in the creation of the Trade Union Unity League in 1930. Before long, word of the league reached many sharecroppers and tenant farmers in the region, who sought help from the group in gaining worker rights.
The league’s popularity with farmers led to an offshoot organized as the Alabama Farmers Relief Council of Cullman County. It had enough support to spawn nine small local offices in the region within months. Interest in the organization peaked after a number of worker strikes by black farmers in Arkansas and Tennessee succeeded in winning some food and supply concessions from local governments and from organizations like the Red Cross. The first meetings of the Relief Council came together in churches in towns like Fairview and West Point with the intent of bringing an integrated group together to demand that local government and relief agencies offer some concessions to struggling sharecroppers, such as debt relief, food and supply rations, and higher wages. In early 1931, white small farmers and black sharecroppers formed the Croppers and Farm Workers Union. White resistance to the Communist Party leadership’s insistence on integration drove most whites out of the organization by the summer, however. Additionally, area landowners delivered threats and had an arrest warrant issued for the party’s local organizer, Angelo Herndon, forcing him to leave the region. In an effort to expand southward, Herndon moved to the Black Belt region of the state and worked almost exclusively with blacks.
After failing to form an integrated union in Alabama, the Communist Party decided to concentrate solely on gaining rights for sharecroppers and tenant farmers, such as the right to market their own crops and deal directly with banks and merchants, rather than working through their landowner bosses. Mark Coad, a young organizer from Birmingham, and Harry Simms, head of the Communist Youth League of Birmingham, reorganized the Alabama Farmers Relief Council as the Alabama Sharecroppers Union (ASU), based in Tallapoosa County, in the summer of 1931.
The ASU was nominally run by the Communist Party, but Simms was the only link to the party and the only white member. The self-organized and collectively run coalition consisted of 30 local organizations whose membership and meetings were secret and rarely recorded. Only a handful of journeyman organizers like Coad and Simms could write and were familiar with the larger party structure, and they often travelled among the locals, spreading news and sometimes directing activities for short periods. Movement and events were often coordinated but took place separately. Each local would receive word that it was time to push the landlords or officials for some action, and those initiatives would occur at each local level at once. In rare instances, leaders in Tallapoosa, or even higher up the in the Communist Party, would issue proclamations or sets of demands, but the locals were largely self-directed.
Initially, the ASU made several demands. It called for the continuation of food advances from landowners and employers to sharecroppers. These benefits had been suspended since the spring because of both the cost and the attempts by farm and mill owners to force the sharecroppers to accept lower wages. The ASU also demanded that sharecroppers be allowed to sell surplus crops directly in the market, rather than going through landowners, who often skimmed profits. In addition, the union members asked for small garden plots on the land they worked so that they could avoid buying food from landowners’ farms. The ASU also sought payment in cash for their crops, rather than the usual payment in equipment and food advances from landowners, which usually left sharecroppers in greater debt if the value of the crops was less than the advances. Another demand was the establishment of permanent, nine-month public elementary schools for their children, for which they were already taxed. Finally, the ASU insisted on the immediate release of the nine defendants in the infamous Scottsboro Trials, which was taking place at the time. This demand, however, was more a show of solidarity with the CPUSA than an interest of sharecroppers.
By 1932, the ASU had attracted nearly 600 members. One such member was Ned Cobb of Tallapoosa County. A successful cotton farmer, he gained greater renown late in his life when his recollections of sharecropping and union activism on behalf of black farmers were retold in All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, which was published in 1974. Two native Tallapoosa sharecroppers, brothers Ralph and Tommy Gray, were the first to attract a sizable following. They initially arranged for Coad and other organizers to hold a meeting at a local church in Tallapoosa County, but they met heavy resistance from local authorities. On July 15, in a clash between the local sheriff and a number of ASU members, Ralph Gray was killed. The following day, ASU members were arrested and four were lynched for their involvement in the meeting. A group of Communist Party attorneys with the International Defense League (IDL), which was also defending the accused in the Scottsboro case, came to the aid of the defendants. Although none of the whites faced any charges, the IDL succeeded in having assault charges against the ASU members dropped, and the victory caused membership to soar. There were, however, violent repercussions for individuals associated with the organization returning to work on farms, and the union became a secretive, or underground, organization.
The ASU began to allow local offices to run themselves as much as possible, as the best measure for keeping the union viable, given resistance from white landowners. The local offices negotiated or renegotiated contracts with landowners, formed cooperative stores to market their own crops, and agitated local markets and relief organizations for food and supply advances and better crop prices. The most successful of these locals was the Lowndes County local, led by Eula Gray, Ralph Gray’s niece.
In the winter of 1932, Al Murphy replaced Coad as a new roaming organizer and travelled from local to local in the Black Belt. Murphy concentrated upon strategic strikes and mass mailings, as opposed to direct local confrontation. In 1934, the ASU held its first official union-wide strike, calling for standardization of payments to sharecroppers of $0.75 per hundredweight of cotton, and was successful in the majority of locals. Through these efforts, Murphy raised ASU membership to its highest and most effective levels. When the strike began, the ASU counted about 6,000 members; over the course of the summer-long strike, the union was able to recruit another 2,000 members. By this time there were 28 locals, 10 youth groups, and 12 women’s auxiliaries; women constituted one-third to one-half of union membership in some locals for most of their existence.
In 1935, Communist Party lawyers and the ASU filed a suit against the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). The agricultural subsidies provided by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies went to landowners, according to the complaint, and were rarely passed on to laborers. The ASU demanded direct relief payment from federal programs, but the AAA was declared unconstitutional in 1936 before the case was settled.
By the mid-1930s, ASU leaders concentrated on central Alabama and had almost completely abandoned the Birmingham region, which had always been the center of union activity in the state. The Great Depression, drought, and some economic programs of the New Deal led to many sharecroppers and tenant farmers being forced from their homes while having to continue to work on the farms as day laborers. The union thus had to divide its resources between organizing day laborers and supporting those who remained living on landowners’ farms. After 1935, the ASU had to fight for wages for the day laborers rather than prices for sharecroppers, and it became difficult to maintain rolls of workers, who tended to migrate regularly.
Despite the success of its underground work in keeping successive strikes going and in recruiting members, the ASU was becoming a heavily splintered movement. Most locals, who had little contact with the overall movement, were often armed with guns, and as resistance grew against local strikes or demands, they fell into increasing violent conflict with landowners. This eroded any support the union might have had locally or from outside groups.
In 1936, the ASU dissolved first into the Farmers Union of Alabama and then into the Alabama Agricultural Workers Union, which continued to fight on behalf of both day laborers and tenants and sharecroppers. In 1937, both of those unions dissolved into the national United Cannery Agricultural Packers Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), along with most other state farmers unions.
Nearly 10,000 workers were members of the ASU at some point in its short life. Its gains were substantial but more symbolic than concrete. At the local level, many members and groups were successful at renegotiating prices and contracts, but overall increases in wages and concessions statewide were moderate. The union was able, however, to recruit enough members to provide ample proof of black workers’ ability to organize for mass action. The legacy of the movement was seen in future organizing efforts by groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and during the civil rights movement. The union’s close affiliation with the Communist Party and heavy resistance from segregationists meant, however, that future groups also had to learn different methods to be more successful.
Kelley, Robin D. G. Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Dyson, Lowell K. Red Harvest: The Communist Party and American Farmers. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
Shaw, Nate. All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. Edited by Theodore Rosengarten. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.