H.L. Mitchell A Lifetime of Organizing and Hell-Raising
By Mike Land
Vol. 9, No. 1, 1987, pp. 3-7
The way H.L. Mitchell figures it, the central mission of his life has been to “raise hell.”
“I always believed that if you raised enough hell, something would be done about a problem,” he said, smiling.
“And I always tried to do that.”
Armed with a socialist’s convictions and a cutting dry wit, Mitchell has raised that hell far and wide. In 1934 he helped found the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union. In the forties he became president of the National Farm Labor Union. The fifties found Mitchell leading migrant workers in California; the sixties put him in the bayous of Louisiana, organizing sugar-cane workers.
And even though he retired to Montgomery Ala., in 1973, Mitchell is still raising a little hell in 1986. He writes newspaper columns and letters to editors about the need for a new homestead act to help the small farmer; he has written his autobiography, Mean Things Happening In This Land, and he tours the country each year on college lecture circuits.
“One thing I can say,” the eighty-year-old observed, “Since that first meeting in 1934 I’ve never been bored. I’ve been mad and upset and all sorts of damn things but I’ve never been bored.”
Harry Leland Mitchell was raised among sharecroppers in west Tennessee. His father, Jim, did some sharecropping. He was also a fundamentalist preacher who dropped out of his family’s life for long periods of time. Combine his father’s disappearances with the atmosphere in Tennessee during the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” and one has the beginnings of Mitchell’s dissatisfaction with organized religion.
“These people like Pat Robertson, there have always been religious pirates like him,” Mitchell recalls. “In my time, we had Billy Sunday preaching against evolution and breaking up strikes. Now we have these people calling their opponents’ humanists–which
strikes me as a pretty good thing to be.”
So it was that as a teen-ager, Mitchell developed an “independent kind of faith.” One’s religious impulses “had to be pragmatic, as far as I was concerned.”
And what seemed pragmatic to him was socialism. He learned about it by responding to a newspaper ad that declared, “To Oppose Evolution, You Have To Know What It Is.” He began to receive a succession of Little Blue Books about different topics, including socialism.
As Mitchell is fond of saying, he heard his first socialist speech in 1920 in “Moscow-Tennessee, that is.” That was where he lived when Dr. John Morris, a veterinarian, passed through and gave a speech on socialism. Mitchell followed him around the rest of the day, asking questions.
The seed had been planted. Nine years later, after the Crash of ’29 brought on the Great Depression, Mitchell was married to first wife Lyndell, had a family and operated a cleaning business in Tyronza, Ark. A fellow Tyronza businessman, gas station owner Clay East, befriended Mitchell
East, unlike Mitchell, had a college education-but, also unlike Mitchell. had little awareness of alternate political philosophies.
“One day,” Mitchell recalled, “CIay came in my place and said, “Hey, there isn’t enough business here for three gas stations. We should work out a deal so each of us takes off different days. Then all of us would have some time to do some fishing. “I said, ‘Well Clay, you know that’s a socialist idea, don’t you?’ And he told me not to call him a socialist, that he wasn’t any such thing. I told him I was going to give him some books to read on the subject. He said he didn’t want to read any book if it had to do with socialism.”
Not many months later, Mitchell had converted East into a socialist so dedicated that East would slip socialist pamphlets and newspapers into the automobiles of customers, and demand that traveling salesmen read the publications if they wanted his business.
Mitchell and East organized their local chapter of the Socialist Party of America and met with its presidential candidate, Norman Thomas. In 1934, Mitchell was part of the Arkansas delegation at the SPA national convention. In that capacity, he watched a rift develop between the New York founders and Midwest members that, in his estimation, ultimately sealed the party’s doom. The older members advocated the cautious tact of working through the vote. Others, Mitchell included, believed that unions-thought “dead” at the time-offered a way to strike more directly at the economic base of power.
Later that year, eleven whites and seven blacks met to form the STFU in a rural Arkansas schoolhouse. Mitchell’s course had been forever diverted onto the union route.
The STFU had its ups and downs, the latter largely imposed from outside by plantation owners and the fear they created. In 1935, authorities in a rural town jailed a black preacher speaking at an STFU meeting. East and Mitchell couldn’t talk an ACLU lawyer into leaving Memphis to free, in the lawyer’s words, a “Nigra preacher.”
East voiced the doubt that if the STFU couldn’t find a lawyer to get a preacher out of jail, the union may as well end. Mitchell was more stubborn and the preacher was released, but the STFU was definitely on the brink of collapse.
Then, however, plantation owners lowered the rate paid per hundred pounds of cotton to sharecroppers from $1 to 75 cents. The STFU swelled to an estimated all time high of 31,000 by 1936. The STFU would go on until the mid-forties. Mitchell, East and other leaders dodged Iynch mobs and night riders, making strategic night runs through hostile territory to reach sharecroppers.
Mitchell still finds sad irony in one violent episode of ’36. In the aftermath of a mob’s attack on a group of white and black marchers, in which black marchers died, a white man and woman investigating were beaten in the woods.
Mitchell immediately arranged for the press to pho-
tograph the beaten whites. As Mitchell wrote in his book, “The beating of a white woman and a white minister became a nationwide human interest story. No attention was paid to Eliza Nolden, a black woman soon to die from the effects of a severe beating, nor to the serious condition of white sharecropper Jim Reese, nor to the fact that Frank Weems, a black sharecropper, had presumably been beaten to death. After all, these three people were just sharecroppers.”
Mitchell managed to continue to get attention for sharecroppers-attention from as lofty a couple as Franklin Delano and Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1939, Mitchell was attending a meeting in New York City when he opened the New York Times and saw pictures of “people I knew sitting on the roadside” in Missouri. They had been dumped there by a plantation owner after a conflict in negotiating a contract. Mitchell immediately went to Washington to seek emergency help for the 1,700 homeless sharecroppers.
After several setbacks, Mitchell managed to win an audience with Mrs. Roosevelt. “Aubrey Williams set it up and I drove up in a taxi cab right through those iron gates, the same ones where Reagan always stands and waves with all those damn dictators,” he said, “I waited for a long time to see her. When she walked in, she apologized to me for being so long. She said, ‘Mr. Mitchell, you know how long it takes us ladies to get ready.’
“I thought she was one of the most attractive women I’d ever seen. I told her the situation, and was thinking that maybe the president could order the National Guard to send down tents and field kitchens. She told me she would put a note on the president’s bedside table and that it would be the last thing he saw before he went to sleep and the first thing he did in the morning.”
FDR’s order was circumvented by the Arkansas governor, who had all the sharecroppers broken up in small groups out of sight, far back from the road. But Mrs. Roosevelt, who wrote a national weekly column, had asked Mitchell what the sharecroppers needed, and her two writings about the problem yielded $5,000 in donations.
“That’s like $50,000 today,” said Mitchell.
Later, due to Mrs. Roosevelt’s aid, 595 houses were built for homeless farmers in Missouri.
Despite such dramatic flourishes, Mitchell and others could see harder things ahead for sharecroppers. Mechanization, they sensed, would soon make them jobless altogether. In anticipation, an inter-union program was worked out which sent twelve thousand sharecroppers to new jobs in Northern cities.
“We were,” Mitchell says, “the only organization that encouraged people to leave. Sharecropping was brutal. If they could get jobs in the city, they were encouraged to do so.”
By the end of 1946, Mitchell had moved on himself He had divorced Lyndell and later married the former Dorothy Dowe of Montgomery, whom he had met when both worked in New Deal programs in Alabama. Dorothy was also active in the farmers’ labor movement.
After World War II the STFU became the National Farm Labor Union, with Mitchell as its first president. The NFLU joined the American Federation of Labor. Soon Mitchell crossed the country to help organize migrant workers in California.
Then, in ’55, Mitchell investigated the White Citizens Councils that arose in the South after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in favor of desegregation. Never one to be falsely complimentary, he called the councils the “KKK in business suits.”
In 1960, Mitchell moved to Louisiana, where he organized everyone from sugarcane plantation workers to fishermen.
He retired from full-time work in 1973, but he has carried the concerns that dominated his career with him.
Time has tempered his views somewhat. For instance, he does not expect the revolution once envisioned by socialists.
“Some of the things Roosevelt did along the lines of welfare were socialist,” he said. “But there has been no basic socialist revolution in this country, because there have always been plenty of jobs, plenty of free land and things of that sort. There has been no major change in the economic structure.”
And, in some ways, he’s even glad about it.
“If we got the government too involved, it would mess up everything,” Mitchell said. “I used to think the government should own everything, but now I’ve seen it make too many messes of things.”
However, Mitchell would object strongly if anyone said he was becoming conservative in his old age. Last summer he had a non-malignant polyp removed from his colon. It was, he observed, “the only thing I’ve had in common with Reagan in 40 years.”
He still believes in unions, despite the corruption that he says exists in many of them. He figures the
STFU was relatively clean in that department. “George Meany once told someone that we were too small to ever attract a good-size racketeer,” Mitchell says, laughing.
But he also indicates that the problems of the small farmer today are worse than the problems of the STFU sharecropper. The STFU, he said, encouraged people to leave farming because the union could line them up with industrial jobs, many of the openings coming as a result of World War II.
“Now there’s no place for people to go,” he said, mentioning the problems of cities filled with unemployed individuals untrained for an increasingly mechanized business world.
Mitchell advocates a homestead act giving families modest acreages with which to farm. He believes small farms are more efficient, particularly if a group of small farmers form co-operatives. The co-ops could be used to acquire equipment and other necessities.
“Some people would tell us co-ops are a Russian idea,” he said. “But there were co-ops in this country long before the Russian Revolution.”
Mitchell also deplores the role of the Farm Bureau, which, he says, is run “just like the Communist Party -from the top down.”
“They’ve done nothing to help the small farmer,” Mitchell said. “They’ve encouraged the building of larger and larger farm units.”
But he worries that farmers are too small in number to cause changes in public policy anymore. “Fifty years ago, 30 percent of our population farmed,” Mitchell said.
These days, it’s down to 2 percent.
“The Reagan Administration knows that. They’re not worried about what the farmers think.”
Which means Mitchell has something yet to achieve.
“I keep thinking a homestead act is bound to happen,” he said. “But I’ve been talking about it for 50 years. I haven’t made much progress.”
But he’s still “raising hell.” And Mitchell hopes he will continue to be an irritant to wrongdoers-even, according to the conclusion of his autobiography, after his death:
“When I shall 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 to the sky, and if something gets in their eyes, they can then say: “There is that damned Mitchell again.””
Mike Land is a reporter for the Alabama Journal in Montgomery.