Interview with Oscar Fendler
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QUESTION 9
INTERVIEWER:

Let's talk about the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. Can you tell me what they were trained to do, who was in it, how they organized?

OSCAR FENDLER:

My personal experience with them, of course, was limited. But my observations of it was pretty broad. And the reason they were, that they did organize was that so many landlords, and I'm not casting a reflection upon Lee Wilson Company, because I don't think it applied to them at all, but so many in this county and the neighboring counties of Crittenden and Poinsett here in Arkansas, were taking terribly advantage of the tenants as well as the sharecroppers. Just treated them like dirt, you know. And so these people were hungry, they were starving, and they, children didn't have clothes, they, in awful condition. And they tried to get the attention of the landlords. Just ignored them and push them aside. "If you don't want to work, we'll get somebody else that will work. You know your job will be filled up pretty fast." The, they started organizing groups, down in, particularly, not as much in Mississippi County as they did in Poinsett, next to us, county. And they, it, quick, it was very quickly a fella named Mitchell was in here with them and he encouraged them and he organized pretty well. He finally made contact with, he and several others, with Norman Thomas. Norman Thomas was a candidate for president in the 1932 election for the Socialist Party, 1936 election, and three more elections after, Norman Thomas. Norman Thomas came down here to, at their request, and to help them. And if I am permitted to digress, I'll tell you, I was personally acquainted with Norman Thomas. I'd met him when I was in school at Cambridge, Massachusetts and had sat around at, at the houses down there on Sundays, and he would talk to about fifty, sixty of us students, and, you know, trying to inculcate us with the socialist philosophy. And then I'd heard him at Ford Hall, and he's just an outstanding man. Brilliant, good-looking, attractive guy, tall. And so, it, it, the invitation, these people invited him to come to Mississippi County to talk to the workers, tenants, and stuff. Our sheriff at that time was Big Boy Wilson and he had a deputy named Hale Jackson, and they met him at the county line that divides Crittenden County from us, also near Poinsett County line. They told him they would not guarantee him safe passage. That was in early 1934. And so he turned around. He went back up north and maybe four or five miles and then crossed over to the next county. Thomas really was sold on the plight of the tenants in, in, in this area as well as the sharecroppers. He came, he came back to, made speeches in Memphis, he came back to Poinsett County and then '34 and in '35. In '35 he finally got into Mississippi County and they had, he had a meeting down at the little community called Birdsong—

[audio only]
OSCAR FENDLER:

—in the very south end of the county, and he was up there talking to them, you know, to the—

INTERVIEWER:

We're out. Too bad. We're going to start back on the Birdsong.

[cut][slate][change to camera roll 315:89]
INTERVIEWER:

OK.

OSCAR FENDLER:

Norman Thomas was, finally came to Mississippi County, finally visited this county in 1935, and he was, went to a little community called Birdsong. Mostly black inhabitants down there and the south end of the county. And was, he was talking on the front of the church, they set him up, too big a crowd, maybe several hundred, they couldn't all get in that little church or building they had there. And so he was, he was addressing them, you know, telling them about how they're being mistreated and how they could, you know, they, Southern Tenants Farmers' Union could be of help to them and all of that. Well, surrounding him on the side, on the ground, on the outskirts, were representatives of landowners, the ones that were the farm bosses, and they created an incident, and they just walked up there and they removed him and somebody else who was with him bodily from the stand and told him to get the heck out. They didn't use profanity. They didn't need a blankity blank, you know, Yankee to come down there and tell them how to farm and how to handle their labor and all of that. And they bodily just, with friends of Mr. Mitchell and others that were his friends there, had to spirit him out, get him out of there and get him back to the, the bridge across Mississippi River into Memphis to save him from bodily harm. Whether he ever came back to Mississippi County after that, Mr. Thomas, I don't know. He had made earlier visits over to Poinsett County, and with incidents. And one of the first incidences I can recall, that I learned about, was when he spoke to a group of, of pretty well-established businessmen and farmers, there at Marked Tree, which is a town right across there in, from Mississippi County, maybe forty, fifty miles from here. And he, he told them in no uncertain terms how they were mistreating the, these tenants and the sharecroppers and that they were violating all sorts of laws and a bunch of stuff. And that didn't sit kindly with his audience. And they, they sort of told him he was not welcome there in Marked Tree and wish he'd stay away from Marked Tree in the future. And they complained about it to the Commercial Appeal, that's the Memphis Commercial Appeal, ran big stories on it, big incidents. He was, Mr. Thomas was individually one of the finest men I've ever known. High ideals. He just happened to differ with me and with a lot of us in our views on economics. And one of the most pleasant visits I ever had with anyone was with him, was through him that I met another big socialist named Harold Laski from England, from London, outstanding man, met him in Cambridge and in Boston. They did not have much reason for being in, in Mississippi County and Poinsett County as to accomplish much. They, if—I've read their reports, Thomas and others, about what they accomplished. They didn't accomplish a great deal in the long run. For instance, back there in those days, they encouraged strikes. And of course to mention strike, a union, to a Southern landowner was just like, I don't know, what, you'd mentioned, I suppose, a Jew to Hitler, you know, and you'd back the same reaction. And the, they encouraged strikes for the cotton. They had a cotton picking strike where they didn't go out to work. He was able to raise the price of picking cotton from fifty cents a hundred to seventy-five cents. He got that accomplished for them. That was some good. And when they got to cotton picking, I mean chopping, I'm not sure that anyone is listening to what I'm saying knows anything about the cotton growing, but in order to grow cotton you plant it and then you have to go in there after it comes up. They have hoes, the people that had to do it with hand labor, and they'd have to chop it and space it so the cotton would grow and the weeds wouldn't stifle it out. And so they had a strike on the cotton. That was about 1935, I remember. And they, they created some, some problems for the landowners when they did it, and they got some benefits for them, for the benefit of those tenants and sharecroppers. They did do that. Landowners didn't like it of course.

INTERVIEWER:

How did they try to stop him? What'd they do?

OSCAR FENDLER:

Oh, they tried to stop him by threats, threats, and have these redneck people that were there, you know, work for him, the bustle boys, being around and threaten if he didn't scatter out and get away from there, they going to beat the devil out of him, whatever. Whatever came in handy. And, and if it was necessary to be thrown in jail, create a disturbance, they'd throw some of them in jail. And then the ironic part about it was, when they'd throw them in the jail and they'd, to get out, maybe some landowner would go in there and buy what they owed the county, the fine or that. And they'd have to work forcibly, so, so to speak, for that same landowner. That wasn't pleasant at all for them.