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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 >>

Opposition to strike in Forrest City, Arkansas

East discusses how he and others were arrested and dealt with forcibly during a strike of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in Forrest City, Arkansas, around 1935. In addition to describing his own run-in with the law during this strike, East explains how a young man with the Workers Alliance who had come to help with the strike was arrested on trumped-up charges during the strike. East's comments are revealing of the visceral reaction against organized labor in that area.

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:
When you went into Forrest City, the lawyer went into the courthouse and tried to get themen…he went to the jail or the courthous?
CLAY EAST:
He went to the courthouse and the men came up for trial and this boy that was on trial, he told this attorney, said "Don't make any plea for me. They gone get all of us. Don't put up a plea, don't make any argument for me." And he was a nice big strong-looking guy. The guy didn't and it was so tense, I was setting in the back of the courtroom myself and an old colored guy passed by and there was this old cripple man setting there with a damn walking cane and he hit at him just as hard as he could and man that thing was so tense that you could just feel it in the air. I knew it was bad.
SUE THRASHER:
This was the trial, then?
CLAY EAST:
Yeah, this was at the trial. And that lawyer, he didn't… this guy told him, this boy from the Workers Alliance told him, said "Don't do a damn thing for me, this thing is just too bad." He realized that, but he had been in jail down there several days.
SUE THRASHER:
Was this lawyer's name Brodski?
CLAY EAST:
That attorney?
SUE THRASHER:
Leobowitz or Brodski?
CLAY EAST:
Brodski sounds more like it. Yeah, yeah. But, well, when I went out of the courthouse. When this attorney left, there was a damn mob following them, a bunch that was in a group, see. And they followed him down to my car which was parked down there. And this lawyer went right down to it and I was talking to you about being brave, well, when I started to walk down there…I knew I was going to have to go, but they went all through my car after that. They took the seat cushions and went all through it and that thing… and when this mob, I started down there and this guy took off and the mob turned on me.
SUE THRASHER:
The lawyer took off.
CLAY EAST:
He took off, said he went down to a cafe to get something to eat and the guys went and took him out of that damn cafe and I understood, beat him up andput him on a bus and told him, "Don't you ever come back into Forrest City, or we'll kill you." Well, this mob, Bunch, he led this mob on me, telling them all I had done. He said I had been off with my best friend's wife and there was this boy that sent me this clipping there about Bunch getting killed, Benton Moore? He's a good friend of mine. Well, it was his wife and she was at Midland, Texas and hell, I was in Miami, seven or eight hundred miles from there. I never saw her and knew nothing about her. Mildred and I was just good friends, Benton and the whole works of us. But this Bunch, he had that mob ready…well, they was backing me up, they was on me and they was hollering, "Kill the son of a bitch" and all this kind of stuff. And I was backing up, and I backed into a kind of ditch and I fell on my back and when I fell, I had my head up against a hedge and these guys was trying to get a hold of me and I was just laying on my hips and I'd wheel and kick one and every time one would get close to me, I'd kick the hell out of him. I was kicking them and them and they couldn't get up. And some big guy, never did know who he was, he got right straddle of me and told these guys, said, "Get the hell off of him. Leave him alone." Well, I got up and they was hollering "Kill him!" and all that kind of damn stuff and I told them, "Now, listen. If I've violated any kind of law or done anything, then put me in jail." I could see that they didn't have much of a leader and the jail was just right up there behind the courthouse, it was all adjoining.
SUE THRASHER:
Now, were the sharecroppers and the Workers Alliance man still in the jail?
CLAY EAST:
Yeah, they was in the jail. So, they was in there when I got there and that Workers Alliance man said, "Goddamn." Said, "I've been in here seventy-two hours, but I won't be in here seventy-two more." He knew what the set-up was. Well, they got them into this office and Sheriff Campbell had gone off to eat or something, but he walked in about that time and I squared off and these guys was still trying to get to me and I squared off in the corner and the sheriff come in and opened the damn jail door, now Mitch said to beat me up, but that was all a damned lie, but then, he's always exaggerating stuff like that, but they put me in that jail and then there's a door that come in the frontand another one in the side, just a little-bitty old office, wasn't but about as half big as that thing there, hardly. And these guys, they was just marching through there and saying, "Godddamn, we'll hang you tonight. We'll break your neck.", and all this kind of stuff. And, some of the damn students from the schools, some gals come in there and I could see they thought "Why, that's a damn shame to hang that nice looking boy like that." And an old boy that I went to school with down in Blue Mountain, was a bookeeper for someone up there and he come in and…he never did speak to me and I didn't say anything to him and I could see him shaking his head to think, "By God, old Clay's one of the top boys at school and to think he's in something like this." And they was calling me "nigger-lover" and all that stuff.
SUE THRASHER:
Do you remember why these people had been put in jail?
CLAY EAST:
Sure, for this strike.
SUE THRASHER:
Exciting to riot.
CLAY EAST:
Exactly. They just picked them up for anything, but this Workers Alliance guy, they had all kind of charges against him.