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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Clay East, September 22, 1973. Interview E-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Determining whether the Southern Tenant Farmers Union should integrate

East discusses the role of race in the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and the question of whether or not the union should be "mixed." At the first meeting, East explains how he openly advocated having an integrated union, arguing that the problems of tenant farmers and sharecroppers, regardless of race, were the same and that having two separate unions would be inefficient. He then describes some of the special problems African American sharecroppers faced because of racism within the system.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Clay East, September 22, 1973. Interview E-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

SUE THRASHER:
Now, go back and tell me some more about the meeting that night. What happened at the meeting?
CLAY EAST:
Well, first one and another got up and made a talk. There was probably half a dozen of us and a lot of times, we'd just get into a discussion. And one thing in particular that I remember, there was an old Englishman there, everybody called him Mr. Payne and he was originally from England and had worked in the coal mines in England and been in unions in England. And, I am almost certain that he was given some kind of duties to perform in the union. Almost certain that he was, but…and I can't remember definitedly about E.B. McKinney.
SUE THRASHER:
Was E.B. McKinney at that meeting?
CLAY EAST:
I don't even know if he was there or not, but I would think that he was. But, anyway, he wound up as vice-president…the main thing that we did at that meeting was we decided to have a union and we also decided and I don't care what Mitch says or anything, I was the one that got up and made the talk at the last and told them that all the sharecroppers and farmers, tenant farmers were working under the same conditions, the all ate the same kind of food, got the same kind of furniture and everything and their interests was the same, so there was no point…and I also brought out that we had had the meeting at the schoolhouse on that first acreage reduction deal, and it was amixed meeting. Of course, they had a section that they let the colored people set in and a section that they let the white people set in, but…
SUE THRASHER:
Now, this was a meeting that had been held prior to the meeting to organize the union?
CLAY EAST:
That's right. It was about the acreage reduction program.
SUE THRASHER:
Where people were told to plow up their cotton?
CLAY EAST:
Yes. They had to have an understanding about that. All of that was very much in favor of…now in that contract, it called the man that owned the land the producer, didn't make a damn whether he did any work or not, the government contract also stated that the way this was divided up should be decided between the producer and the tenants. And the check went to the producer, so he's sitting now with the check in his hand, well he can say, "You guys didn't have to pick this cotton. All you did was to plow it up, so you're not entitled to half of it." And a lot of them never did get anything. Well, since I was what in that section they called the law, that was a fair description of my position in there, because I was the only officer in that section. These people would come to me.
SUE THRASHER:
For you to get them their share of themoney?
CLAY EAST:
They'd come to me and tell me their troubles, see. Tell me that Mr. So-and-so got the check and he hadn't give me anything. The way that I saw it, they started out on the shares, and after this farmer had agreed to plow up this cotton, well, I figured that the sharecropper had carried out his part of the contract and I thought that he was entitled to half of it. And a good many of the farmers did, all of them didn't have trouble. Mostly the bigger ones and the most crooked ones and some of them would only give them a third, and as I said, a lot of them never did get anything out of it. I don't know just what the sharecropper could do. The man is setting there with the check and the money and he can go down and cash it. This guy doesn't have to sign it or anything, he goes down and cashes it and he's got the money in his hand. That was the way the government contract read, that this tenant has to make a deal with the producer.
SUE THRASHER:
Well, now, was that one of the things that was discussed that night at the union meeting?
CLAY EAST:
No, I don't think that was brought up at the union meeting. The only thing that we talked about particularly there was the union and of course, it came up before we went out there. We hadn't given it much thought whether it was going to be two unions or mixed or what…at least I hadn't and I don't think the others had. So, that was one of the discussions that came up.
SUE THRASHER:
Now when you said that it would be difficult to have two unions because of meetings and so forth, did you understand or know that there would be a lot of trouble?
CLAY EAST:
Oh, postively. Yes, I knew that, but I had already been more or less in trouble as the law. Because I respected every man no matter what color he was and I would serve a warrent or have a man arrested for abusing or doing something to a colored man just as quick as if he'd done it to a white man. I was a different kind of law. They hadn't ever had that experience in there before and when Joe and I was boys, growing up, we used to talk about the way that Mac Howard, who was the constable then, and then they had an old lawyer there, Aaron MacMullen, about the way they treated the colored people, see. They just treated them anyway. They had a lot of advantages in some ways over white people. If a colored guy killed another colored guy, they never would do anything to him hardly. And if he was a pretty good worker… I know of one instance in particular, that was a colored guy that worked on the section gang, he was from Deckerville and he had a woman and he caught another guy in bed with her and he killed both of them, he shot, I can't remember whether he shot the man or the woman, but then he broke the stock off the gun and beat the other one to death, though. And they did, they sent him to the penitentary and the boss man needed him on the farm…he worked on the farm when he wasn't working on the section, he was a good worker. So, he went and got him out, they never did have any trouble getting a man out, a black man, because they didn't want them in the penitentary anyway…if he killed another black man. So, they had a lot of advantages over the whites…