On January 10, 1939, my dad turned 18 years old. Born and raised in a slightly patrician white business family in Arkansas, he came to the Missouri Bootheel (that little hangy-down uvula-like part of the southeast corner of my state) two years earlier when his father (my grandfather – Big Dad) secured a deal to rent and farm a half section (320 acres) of rich Mississippi River ancient alluvial dirt, which Big Dad would plant fence-row to fence-row in cotton.
Dad had helped out on the plantations his dad worked on in Arkansas. He rode a horse he loved as he roved through the fields checking out the operation. I don’t know how the white workers addressed him, but the black workers called him “Mr. Doug”. He was only 14 or 15 years old. He told me that a few times in his later years, and it always seemed to me that it was a confession of sin, of regret, of guilt. But he never took it further. Yes, he grew up racist, as did my mom. (You know how little kids tend to put things in their mouths (“choking hazard”!) ? When I would pop a coin into my mouth, Mom would say “Take that out! Some ~n-word~ might have touched that!”)
I’m not sure why, but that overt familial racism didn’t get me, didn’t get to me. It seemed as crazy when I was six as it does now I’m 67. (But, yes, I know some of that early training still lurks deep in my bones. I just hope I’m where it’s undetectable and untransmittable. I saw a post somewhere awhile back that says something like “If you’re white and say you don’t see color, then you don’t see what black people in the U.S. have struggled with, still struggle with every damned day!” That’s a paraphrase, but man!…)
But I digress. January 10, 1939 – Dad’s birthday. Tuesday. He wakes early on the farmstead, located between Matthews and Canalou (at the confluence of Third Ditch and Otter Slough, to be precise), and jumps into Big Dad’s pickup truck to head to Sikeston, a few miles to the northeast. He never told me why he was going. He approaches U.S. Highway 61 driving east on New Madrid County Road H, and he sees a bunch of people lining the highway. With tents and cookstoves and and. WTF!, or 1939 words to that effect. He drives into Sikeston, striking sharecroppers lining the entire 7-mile route. He does his business, and returns to his home. And that was that. (My mom was 12 at the time, living in the house where I’m typing this, one block from then U.S. Highway 60, which is reported to have also had families lined up. But Mom said she has no recollection of the Strike at all.)
I so regret not asking Dad more about his and his family’s reaction to that moment. He swore Big Dad did not employ sharecroppers, and that Big Dad supported their anger at being shut out of payments. Payments? See the video below that is the whole purpose of my rant here.
So, finally, here is the video I found tonight. There are lots of stories about this mostly forgotten Sharecroppers Strike. Their story is truly amazing, and it deserves a wider reading. This video kinda nails it in just a few short minutes, even as it leaves out a bunch of heroic details. I hope it moves you as much as it does me. (I SO want to credit this video to whoever created it, but I haven’t found the source yet! If any y’all know, PLEASE comment!)
UPDATE July 26, 2020: I’m so happy that Judy/Remi reblogged this just now. But I just found ANOTHER video about the Strike that also resonates! It’s done by Professor Carol Anderson of Emory University. Check it out below!
UPDATE July 30, 2020: I’m happy again to find this video compilation of photos from the Strike! The first photo shown is the intersection of Highway 61 and County Road H, where my father would have first seen this amazing event.