Camera Rolls: 315:84-85
Sound Rolls: 315:47
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Miller Williams , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on January 30, 1993, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
Take one, marker.
We learned from the lessons of the Elaine Massacre that, that if there was going to be an organization of tenant farmers in the South it had to include both blacks and whites because—
Stop. Let's stop for a second.
Marker. Take two.
H.L. Mitchell and the other organizers of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union learned from the Elaine Massacre in 1919 in which blacks who had, who were organizing into a Southern Tenant Farmers' Union in effect were attacked, that if it was going to be a successful union it had to include both blacks and whites. If they couldn't do this, they couldn't have a union.
Can you do that again for me but don't refer to the Elaine organizing effort as the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union.
Well that's why I said in effect, but I won't, I won't do it.
But we don't want to confuse people.
You can go.
No, I'm, I'm resetting my—I'm clearing my screen. H.L. Mitchell and the other organizers of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union had learned from the Elaine Massacre in 1919 that if there was going to be a successful union, it had to be a union also of blacks and whites, if it was going to be successful at all.
And I also need you to tell me what the Elaine Massacre was, what happened and why?
OK, you want me to start the whole thing over?
The whole thing.
All right. H.L. Mitchell and the other organizers of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union learned from the lesson of the Elaine Massacre in 1919, where there had been an attempt to organize just the blacks, who were attacked and killed by whites who were not involved in the organizational effort, that if they were going to be a successful Southern Tenant Farmer's Union, it had to encompass the black sharecroppers and the white sharecroppers or it wouldn't be successful.
This is supposed to be rolling on a board over your shoulder.
[laughs] Now, you told me earlier the story of your father providing a place for H.L. Mitchell to meet.
When Mitchell was attempting to, to get black sharecroppers, and white sharecroppers, and some community leaders together in the early '30s, he ran into, to problems of, of security. The meetings kept being broken up either by the sheriff's people or by the landowners' goons, who didn't want them to meet because it was an interracial meeting, which raised actual legal problems in Arkansas at the time, or just because it was a union organizing effort and the landowners didn't want the unions around. There was nowhere for them to go in order to talk about what the union is going to be and how do we go about setting it up and recruiting members. My father was a young minister, was the pastor of the Methodist Church in Hoxie. He met H.L. Mitchell, they got to know and trust one another, and he invited Mitchell to have his organizational meetings in secret in the basement of the Hoxie Methodist Church.
There was a bad plane up there.
The plane was bad?
You've got twenty seconds left.
OK, can we do that over again because of the airplane?
Take three, marker.
In the early '30s when H.L. Mitchell was trying to bring black sharecroppers and white sharecroppers together into early organizational meetings, he continually ran into trouble because the meetings were broken up by either by the sheriff's men or by men working for the landowners, the goons, they'd be called in the North, who didn't want the meetings to take place for a couple of reasons: They didn't want the blacks and the whites to be together, and they didn't want unions to be organized. They didn't, they didn't have any place where they could go in the county and several counties around. My father was a minister, a Methodist minister, and pastor of the Methodist church in Hoxie at the time. He met H.L. Mitchell, somehow, they got to know each other and trust each other. My father offered the basement of the Hoxie Methodist Church to Mitchell, where he could have his organizational meetings in secret, and they did for several years.
Now, [coughs] you told me earlier about when your father moved to Blytheville area and his efforts to convince the landowners to pay in actual currency as opposed to script. Can you tell me that story again?
Mm-hmm. When we were living in Blytheville in the late '30s up through 1941, my father was pastor of the Methodist Church there. He was continuing to work with the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, which had been organized then, and his job was to try to convince and pressure the landowners to pay the sharecroppers in currency rather than script. If they could be paid in currency they would be freed from the plantation commissary, and therefore freed from the perpetual debt that the book keepers for the plantation managed to keep them. The debt kept them from ever being able to leave. If a sharecropping family tried to leave a plantation and the plantation owner didn't want them to, he could invoke the law to have the sheriff's people go after them and bring them back because they owed money to the plantation and couldn't leave while they did. Only by getting the landowners to pay them in money could that cycle be broken. My father wasn't successful, but he tried hard enough that, that the family, our family was made very nervous by continual death threats during the times that, that, that, the years that we lived in Blytheville.
Now, in Blytheville there was one particular family that was very powerful there, and can you talk to me about that particular family and how they did control the entire area?
R.E.L. Wilson? Can you cut the camera a minute?
The leadership of the union and probably the Rankin File were aware of the fact that the, the, the plantations and plantation owners in their relative importance formed a kind of pyramid. At the top of that pyramid was the Wilson Plantation. It's, the owner of the Wilson Plantation was R.E.L. Wilson, Robert E. Lee Wilson. Wilson was so powerful that he established the tone and the agenda for dealing with the Southern Tenant Farmer's Union, and that essentially was to, to come down hard, give no quarter, break up the meetings, and, in particular, drive a wedge between the black membership and the white membership. That would cause it to fall, they had also learned something from the Elaine Massacre.
Now, that tone and coming down hard on this union membership manifested itself one day with the story you told me earlier about the black man being dragged through town. Can you recount that for me?
The most terrible example of, of brutal response that, that I know of, that, that we have in our family lore, is my brother's vision of seeing a black man, apparently dead, on a rope behind a car being dragged through the streets of Hoxie, apparently as an object lesson to, to other blacks. Is something that, that—I started to say we didn't get over for a long time, but I don't think the family's over it yet.
Now, your father worked as an organizer. Tell me the story of when he was removed from the field.
I think he ran actually.
Take five, marker.
To my knowledge my father didn't get involved much in, in organizing in the field, except one time I know about when field becomes literal and not metaphorical, I mean he was out in the cotton field talking to tenant farmers when a shot was fired and clearly and obviously in his direction. The family was shaken over that. He was dissuaded from working in the fields for a little while, it, it, it did frighten him, frightened us all to the extent that we had dinner with our shades drawn for a while because we were frankly afraid of Night Riders. They weren't a myth.
And do you want to tell me about the fact that Night Riders could have been sheriff's men, could have been goons from the plantation owners, could've been one in the same?
Night Riders we can say, we can say we didn't know who Night Riders were, and specifically usually we didn't, but we knew that they were very likely to be goons hired for the purpose by plantation owners sometimes, or sometimes regular staff of the plantation owners, sometimes sheriff's men. Sometimes, there was no difference. There may have been, there may have been actual Klan involvement in it, but again there wasn't a clean line between who, which was which. You could work for the sheriff and still be a member of the Klan, and still work for a plantation owner.
Now, in terms of any help from the federal government or any federal government presence, compared to the steel workers up north, what was the situation?
It was—let me start this way and if you don't, if it doesn't work I'll start back—we were, the organizers were very much aware that there was no one to turn to, no one in authority. We believed that in the North, that the government played a role, maybe a kind of referee role in all of this. We didn't, we knew we couldn't turn to local authority, and we never gave a thought to federal authority. We felt not federal presence. Let me start over. I'm still saying "we," I was, I was four. The organizers of the union knew, it's my understanding, that in, in the North, the federal government played at least a kind of referee role in this, in union organization and the, the confrontation between union and the, the and corporate ownership, in the, in the South,
certainly in my part of the South, the union organizers had no one to turn to in terms of government. Certainly they couldn't have turned to the county sheriff,
** to the, to the town marshal, to the state government, not at that time. And so far as the federal power is concerned,
** we didn't know it existed. We had no sense of a federal—can I, can I start in the middle of a sentence?
Of course you can.
So far as the federal government is concerned, they didn't know it existed. I had been—so far that the federal government is concerned, they didn't know it existed.
It's been explained to me very clearly over and over again, the vacuum that they felt, that there was no federal presence here.
Well not good, but maybe you can cut and paste it.
We can make it work. Now, can you give me—
I could've broken down and cried, that might've gotten me through that one.
[laughs] Can you give me, give me anything more in terms of the general atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and the protocol, the rules of the South, the idea of this interracial union making demands trying to change something? Do we need to stop? You need to think about it for a minute?
Well, in a second. I was, I told you about my—
Let's stop because I want this to be—
The broad based and venomous response to the attempts to organize the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union are explained in great part because it was an interracial movement. A lot of people enlisted in the fight against the union, not because it was a union, but because it was interracial. An awful lot of people who had nothing to do with plantations and could not have cared less what happened to them, did not want blacks and whites meeting together because it represented a crack in the dike of, of segregation.
Good, let's stop again.
You have to attribute this to your father in New York and I—
Yeah, yeah, of course, of course, of course. My father was aware of the fact—had to be—that so far as changing the lives of the sharecroppers in any permanent way was concerned, the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union was a dismal failure, but it taught the people who were involved in it two very important things, and that was never—but it taught the people who were involved in it two very important things: One, that they could fight, they could organize, and they could do it with dignity. To my father, what it taught them more importantly, was that blacks and whites could fight together.
That's good. Can you give it to me again because I'd like to have it just in one take so I can leave you on camera [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ]
OK, I will try.
Take eight, marker.
My father was aware of the fact that in,
as an instrument to change the lives of the sharecroppers in any substantive and permanent way, the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union was a dismal failure, but he believed
** —and I think rightly that it—let me start over. Let me start over. I want to leave me out of it. My father was aware of the fact, that
** as an instrument for changing the lives of the tenant farmers in any substantive and permanent way, the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union was a dismal failure, but he believed that it taught all those people who were involved in it two very important lessons: One, that they could fight, and with dignity, and two,
** and more importantly for him, that blacks and whites could fight together.
Let's stop again.
Intimidation took many forms. If it happened after dark the perpetrators were always called Night Riders.
** Whoever was doing it was a generic term. One could become a Night Rider simply by trying to scare people after dark for political reasons. This intimidation might take the form of knocking over someone's outhouse, driving a car through a fence, shooting someone's hog or dog. Or in another context closer to home, my mother and father were made to lie down on their front porch by a man with a shotgun, and held there almost until dawn, as punishment and intimidation.
Good. We'll just keep rolling but tell me the story of your father being run out of the fields again.
One time when my father was working in the cotton fields talking to, to sharecroppers who were not yet members of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, a shot was fired, clearly at him. It shook him up pretty badly. It shook us all up in the family. For some time after that we, we ate dinner with the shades drawn. We were afraid of Night Riders.
The county sheriff was as important as he was, in great part, because there was no federal presence. The federal government, to us, meant the WPA and the CCC. But it, there was no, no federal law enforcement, there was no federal judiciary that we were aware of. It was all the sheriff.
Tell me that again, but then contribute to your father, not we.
Oh, well I knew that though, I knew that at the time, but at the time I was six. But I'll—
You got to be quick though because it's rolling.
OK, stop it. Start where? Right at the beginning?
Yeah, at the beginning.
To my father and the organizers the federal government was the WPA and the CCC—
—but there was no judiciary and no, no federal cop, no law enforcement from the federal government so far as we knew. So—cut it.
We're out of film.
Well maybe you can cut—the thing is, the reason I've had so much trouble, I was there then.