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Blacks, Unions, & Organizing in the South, 1956-1996


Compiled by Rudolph Lewis





The South: A Road Leads Up

By Simmons Fentress

The Charlotte Observer (December 16, 1956)


Twenty years ago Franklin Roosevelt pointed to the South as the "nation's No. 1 economic problem." Much has happened in the South since then, most of it good. Living standards are up. An agrarian economy is increasingly spotted with industry. Machinery hums now along many a Tobacco Road. Wage scales are rising, however slowly. The sharecropper is harder to find than ever. Farm and home ownership have jumped. On the rural routes the electric light has replaced the kerosene lamp; telephones are slowly coming. Social and economic barriers are beginning to lower for the Negro. Economic trends cross the Mason-Dixon Line with more freedom than they once did.

All this may be so. Yet if President Eisenhower were to say tomorrow that the South is still the nation's No. 1 economic problem he would be largely correct. Correct, that is, so long as he added that this is the region where the promise is now as great as the problem. The Senate Banking Committee, whose chairman is a Southerner, took a long look recently at the economic state of things in the South. It published its finding in a little book called "Selected Materials on the Economy of the South." It could better have called it "What's Wrong with the South." As a take-off point, the Committee noted that the income of the average Southerner still is pitifully low.

In 1955 that income was $1,292, not quite two-thirds that of the rest of the country. The six states with the lowest incomes were all in the South. North Carolina, at 44th, was among them. Florida, the Southern state with the highest per capita income, ranked no better than 24th on the list. In Mississippi, at the bottom, the average person earned less than half the income enjoyed by people in the rest of the country. Arkansas ran 47th in this poverty poll. South Carolina was 46th, Alabama 45th, Kentucky 43rd and Tennessee 41st. These figures reflect not only the economic opportunity of those in the South. They help to explain the tremendous export of manpower and brainpower to other parts. They are much, but not all, of the reason for the outward migration that began in earnest around World war I and still goes on.

In the last 15 years the civilian population of the United States rose twice as rapidly as that of the South. Two states, Mississippi and Arkansas (47th and 48th) actually lost population during the period. Between April, 1950 and July, 1954, the number of persons leaving the South was greater by 1,191,000 than the number moving in. Florida, as a haven for the retired, was the only Southern state that gained through migration. North Carolina lost 170,000; South Carolina, 67,000.

Clearly the South is sharing only to a degree in what Carl Sandburg has called the 'fat-dripping prosperity' of the nation. It is losing thousands of its citizens, both white and black, because of that fact. People who were educated at state expense are leaving. They are going to boom areas because the boom has not come to them. What is responsible? The Committee, in answer, turns first to the farm. A good yardstick to a region's economic development and income level is the percentage of its labor force employed in agriculture. That is true because earnings generally are lower there; they are lower everywhere.

The South still is an agricultural land. It not only is a region of farms, it is a region of small farms. And today the small farmer is likely to be the 'marginal' farmer, squeezed between higher costs and lower prices. Unless he can become big, he is likely to be forced off the land. He usually lacks the money to become big. The mule, today's symbol of the little farm, is making its last stand in Dixie. Outside the South, only one of every 12 farms still uses animal power. Every third farm uses animals in the South. In 1954, the value of land and buildings per farm in the South was $8,538. Outside the South it was $26,194.

More than a third of Southern farms were smaller than 30 acres. The proportion of small farms outside the South was just half as great. Almost two of three Southern farms were under 70 acres. The ratio outside was one of three. The average farm in the South held 107 acres. Outside the average was 323 acres. These figures tie closely to North Carolina's poor showing in per capita income. Of all the 48 states, North Carolina has the largest percentage of its population living and working on farms. Only Texas has more farms. The trend throughout the country is toward larger farms. The South lags in the movement.

In the last 15 years the size of the average Southern farm has increased by 31 per cent. Outside the South the average farm expanded by 41 per cent. The Southern farm, poorer in land and buildings, also is poorer in equipment and living facilities. Telephones are found on only one of five farms. Outside the South, two-thirds of the farms have them. Only one of two Southern farms had an automobile in 1954. Outside, eight of 10 farms have them.

In the same year, only one of five farms in the South sold products valued at more then $5,000. On three of five Southern farms, the products sold brought no more than $2,500. In the rest of the country, only half the farms sold products worth less than $5,000. Only one of four sold products that brought less than $2,500. It is these low income farms that are 'disappearing', in the South as elsewhere. The people who are leaving them are, in many cases, breaking the pattern of generations. The South can expect to hold them only if there is room elsewhere in the economy. So far there is not enough room. There is too little industry to absorb the displaced. They must, like the Oakies, go elsewhere.

That is one of the major problems in Eastern North Carolina. That section put most of its eggs in the tobacco baskets and the future of tobacco there is increasingly dim. Yet industries are few and far between, and the wage scales are likely to be low at such plants as there are. It is the South's problem in a nutshell.

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The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper's wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man's turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners' plans to give him a "necktie party" (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by "the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn't operate in his own home town." Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson's magnificent, extensively researched study of the "great migration," the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an "uncertain existence" in the North and Midwest. Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.

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