H.L. Mitchell, 1906-1989

By Mike Land and Randall Williams

Vol. 11, No. 4, 1989, p. 15

H.L. Mitchell, co-founder of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and a life-long Southern radical and activist, died August 1 in Montgomery, where he had lived in semi-retirement since 1973. He was 83.

"I always believed that if you raised enough hell, something would be done about a problem. And I always tried to do that," Mitchell said in an interview for the March 1987 issue of Southern Changes. Armed with a socialist's convictions and a cutting dry wit, Mitchell raised hell far and wide.

In 1934 he helped found the STFU, perhaps the nation's first truly biracial labor union. In the 1940s he became president of the National Farm Labor Union, and in the 1950s he was leading migrant workers in California--he issued Cesar Chavez his first union card. In the 1960s, Mitchell organized sugar cane workers in Louisiana.

Even in retirement he stayed active, writing letters to newspapers and lobbying Congress for a new homestead act to help small farmers. He found time to write his autobiography, Mean Things Happening In This Land, and to shepherd the production of a film, Our Land Too: The Legacy of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. And he lectured widely on college campuses.

Only in the last few months did he markedly slow down. And August 1, when Harry Leland Mitchell died at a Montgomery hospital, he left a rich legacy of his own: a legacy of social ideals, pragmatic action, and colorful expression. He was, in essence, a great American character.

Telling of his 1930s visit to the white House to meet Eleanor Roosevelt, he recalled riding "right through those iron gates, the same ones where Reagan always stands and waves with all those damn dictators."

Then there was his first meeting with Reagan, at a 1950s American Federation of Labor meeting. Mitchell was there as head of the NFLU and Reagan as head of the Screen Actors Guild. "One day I saw Ron standing there, looking wise like he does, and I said, 'Ron, I'm H.L. Mitchell. I want to talk to you. People keep tapping me on the shoulder and calling me Ron.' He said, 'Well, I'm glad to meet you because I always have people saying, "Hey, Mitch, how are the farmers" And I don't know a damn thing about farmers.' And he still doesn't," laughed Mitchell.

Mitchell was laughing and joking about the issues he took so very seriously right up to the end of his life. He remained an advocate for small farms and believed a combination of agricultural cooperatives and a national homestead act could help a new generation of farmers make a living off the soil. He believed small farms were inherently more efficient and also better for workers, especially for individuals who are unemployed today and untrained for an increasingly technological world.

He had traveled far for a sharecropper who was a Tennessee native and who had become a socialist by reading tracts during breaks from pressing clothes in a dry cleaners' in Tyronza, Arkansas.

In his autobiography, Mitchell had described the funeral he wanted. He didn't get it--being buried just up the hill from Lurleen Wallace in a Montgomery cemetery--but the words said a lot about the spirit of the man:

"When I have lived out my life I have asked that my body be cremated, and that my ashes be scattered in the wind over eastern Arkansas. Then, if any one of the plantation owners or their descendants who know of me still survive, may they some day look up in the sky, and if something gets in their eyes, they can then say: 'There is that damned Mitchell again.'"