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 plantations 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 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! A ~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 at that relatively new HIV-positive status where it’s “undetectable and untransmittable”. I saw a post somewhere 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. 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 from the county road he’s on, and he sees a bunch of people lining the highway. With tents and cookstoves. WTF!, or 1939 words to that effect. He drives into Sikeston, does his business, and returns to his home. And that was that.
I so regret not asking him more about his and his family’s reaction to that moment. (He swears 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. This story is truly amazing, and it deserves a wider reading. This short 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.