Mississippi Freedom Labor Union founded
A group of farm workers gathered at the local Freedom School in the Mississippi Delta town of Shaw, Mississippi in January 1965. They were dissatisfied with the small wages they received for the long hours working in the cotton fields. Encouraged by SNCC field secretary Frank Smith, they decided to form a union, so “we could make a law that none shouldn’t work unless he got $1.25 an hour.” George Shelton, who later became the chairman for the Mississippi Freedom Labor Union (MFLU), remembered, “We felt that we should be getting a fair price for what we were working for.”
A SNCC field report described Shaw as “a depressing little town uselessly and stupidly stuck in the middle of cotton fields.” Like elsewhere in the Delta, Black people in Shaw worked primarily as sharecroppers or seasonal farm workers who lived on white-owned plantations. The sharecropping system trapped many Black farm workers in a circle of debt.
After World War II, many Black people in the region left the state and headed north in search for better opportunities. Those that remained continued to toil in the cotton fields for 30 cents an hour ($2.27 in today’s currency) and remained economically powerless. By the mid-sixties, however, mechanization was rapidly making their labor obsolete.
In Mississippi, labor unions were virtually non-existent, and plantation owners met any attempts to organize for Black economic or political power with hostility that amounted to economic terrorism. Nonetheless, with no experience and no model on which to base their work, the cotton workers in Shaw began organizing their union. By April 1965, they had developed a functioning union with roughly a thousand members from six counties, concentrated mostly in the Delta. At its first statewide meeting, members decided to call their nascent union “The Mississippi Freedom Labor Union” drawing a connection to the recently formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP).
In the spring and summer of 1965, MFLU locals organized labor actions in various communities in the Delta. At its peak, MFLU had 1,350 members and about 350 on strike. In Indianola, “cotton choppers,” who weeded in between the cotton rows, struck for $1.25 an hour. The secretary of the Indianola local, Mrs. Edna Mae Garner, was one of many who made a defiant stand for a decent wage. “When [the bossman] asks me ‘will I do some chopping’ and I will tell him ‘No, I’m on strike ‘till I get $1.25 an hour.” Farm workers in Tribbett, a small rural community near Greenville in Washington County, organized a strike after local plantation owner A.L. Andrews refused to pay them $1.25 an hour. In retaliation, Andrews evicted the families that rented on his property without warning and his neighbors supplied him with the labor needed to hoe his fields.
Planter solidarity coupled with the mechanization of cotton farming and decreasing need for human labor made many MFLU strikes futile. About 80 families in the Delta were evicted for striking. In January 1966 when the Greenville Air Force base was about to be sold, strikers occupied it in an attempt to focus federal attention on their plight. Air Force police expelled them. Strikers finally created a tent city, known as “Strike City” and appealed to northerners for food, clothing, and fundraising. Unfortunately, the $15,000 strike fund was quickly depleted, and future strikes never materialized. Black sharecroppers found that they didn’t have the leverage they needed to force big planters to meet their demands.
Though defeated, the very existence of the MFLU was a powerful symbol of the kind of determination and defiance that began changing Mississippi. It was a reminder of the work left to be done, a vivid illustration of the wide economic gap that remained even after voting rights had been secured.
Stokely Carmichael with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) (New York: Scribner, 2003).
John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1994).
Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).