The roadside protest that captivated the nation in 1939

Alex Arbuckle

​​​​​​In January 1939, motorists on highways in the "Bootheel" of southeastern Missouri began reporting a strange sight: thousands of sharecropper families were camped out on the roadside, their meager possessions piled around them, exposed to the wintry cold.

The families, almost all African-American, had been evicted by the owners of the farms where they had lived. Because sharecroppers were entitled to a portion of the harvest of the fields they worked, the government had recently announced they were also entitled to a direct portion of federal farm subsidies — a distasteful arrangement for the landowners, who had decided they would rather keep the full subsidies and hire day laborers to bring in their crops.

Within hours of their appearance on the roadside, word began to spread through St. Louis and beyond of the pitiful people on the Bootheel highways, desperate for relief, with nowhere to go.

But the encampments, despite their appearance of ramshackle spontaneity, were the result of months of canny organizing.

Check out the photos below:

The landowners' desire to do away with sharecroppers had been obvious for some time, but in the summer of 1938, people learned that mass evictions would be coming on the first day of the new year.

The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, which boasted some 4,500 members in the Bootheel, hurried to devise a response. Union leader and preacher Owen Whitfield, the memory of a recent failed strike still fresh in his mind, felt the best course of action was not to attempt to bargain with the landowners, but to seize the attention of the federal government and force it to step in.

At a meeting with imperiled sharecroppers, one remarked that he and his family, once evicted, would have no choice but to camp on the side of the road. Whitfield recognized this as a brilliant idea for a visible, impactful demonstration — helpless families shivering outside in the dead of winter, with passing drivers forced to ponder the reason for their plight and call for their aid.

Shortly after the beginning of the new year, 1,500 newly uprooted men, women and children set out their chairs, bed frames and stoves next to crude shelters along Highways 60 and 61.

Reporters and photographers, who had been tipped off by Whitfield, were there to cover it.

Among them was Farm Security Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein, who captured close-up portraits of the demonstrators, recognizing them not simply as victims waylaid by economic forces but as individuals making a conscious gambit to have themselves heard.

We have no place to go. We don't know if this will do any good, but it will show the people what we are up against.

The stagecraft worked. Photos of huddled masses on desolate highways ran in newspapers across the country, grabbing the attention of the public. Many cried for the government to intervene, while some dismissed the demonstrations as the work of outside agitators.

President Roosevelt ordered his Secretary of Agriculture to render assistance to the people who "went out on the road," and the First Lady addressed them in her nationally syndicated newspaper column.

The winter which started out so kindly, has turned out to be a hard winter after all. Those of us who have a warm place to sleep, plenty of clothing and enough food are really not concerned, beyond a mild desire to see the sun now and then. However, I cannot help wondering about the sharecroppers' families in Missouri. I fear that human suffering is not confined to Europe these days.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Jan. 31, 1939

Once government agents arrived, the previously stoic demonstrators were not hesitant to make their demands heard.

Many wanted the government to establish a cooperative settlement like it had in 1937 with the nearby La Forge Farms, where homesteaders could rent individual farm plots on government-owned land and have access to decent community facilities.

Some wanted to own their own land. All wanted the opportunity to work.

Give me a hand and I will make my living like other men.

Elijah Moore

While the demonstrators were communicating their concerns to the sympathetic feds, local authorities were impatient to get rid of the bothersome and unsightly encampments.

On Jan. 13, the camps were declared an unsanitary threat to public health (a common law enforcement tactic for dealing with protest occupations).

The next day, the Highway Patrol moved in and executed a second eviction, demolishing the roadside camps and scattering the demonstrators to "concentration camps" around the Bootheel.

The largest camp was in a marshy swath of the Birds Point Floodway in New Madrid County. (It was once farmland occupied by sharecroppers and tenant farmers, but had been flooded in 1937 to protect the city of Cairo, Illinois.)

Conditions in the camp were just as unsanitary as the roadside, but it was out of sight of concerned passersby and guarded by police. The inhabitants called it "Homeless Junction."

When the FSA attempted to send aid and supplies, the local authorities dismantled the camp and dispersed the demonstrators even farther afield, hoping to drive them from the federal government's eye for good.

The visual protest was finished, but the struggle continued.

Some of the sharecroppers were able to capitalize on the protest publicity and raise enough money to purchase 93 acres of land and establish the community of Cropperville.

The Southern Tenant Farmers' Union continued to lobby the FSA for loans and assistance for the displaced sharecroppers.

In January 1941, two years after the roadside demonstration, the FSA completed the construction of ten settlements around the Bootheel, with almost 600 homes, plus community buildings, wells, utilities and most importantly, land.