Tag Archives: H.L. Mitchell

Little Rock Reminders of the Shoulders Where We All Stand

Little Rock    One of the interesting things about a city the size of Little Rock, and perhaps one of the little understood secrets of ACORN’s growth and success there after its founding in 1970, is that it is just big enough to be a city and just small enough that you can fairly easily see the moving pieces.  I was reminded of this talking to University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) History Professor John Kirk about a wide variety of subjects.  Kirk is a United Kingdom (Manchester) bred expert of civil rights history in Arkansas and was apropos of my general theme here was introduced to me by Occupy activist and UALR student, Robert Nunn, who I met as the son of an ACORN leader in the Oak Forest neighborhood in the early 1970’s where we fought a huge anti-blockbusting campaign against real estate racial manipulation of pricing and integration.

As ex-ACORN and current Arkansas Community Organizations staffer, Neil Sealy, and I visited with John and Robert, we hit on subject after subject where threads of continuity were woven endlessly.  Kirk had written a definitive book on the “Arsnick” or Arkansas SNCC movement including the incidents in Gould, where a family was burned out that housed the SNCC workers, and of course one of the first organizers I hired for ACORN was Bobbie Cox, whose grandmother owned the house in that story.  The SNCC story led to a discussion of the threads which ran through Gould and then onto ACORN from the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union and H. L. Mitchell.  For an hour we seemed to move from one free association to another.  Mention the KABF radio station and the earlier voter registration history of ACORN, and there is Pat House former chair of the board and long time ACORN stalwart as a silent and invaluable friend and advisor, along with Mamie Ruth Williams, both of whom Kirk immediately recognized as members of the Women’s Emergency Committee more than a decade earlier than ACORN during the 1957 Central High School integration crisis including Eisenhower’s use of the troops to achieve integration.  Later Kirk sent me a draft of a piece he has in an upcoming book on that looks at the preconditions that established the scenario’s that led to the 1957 crisis much of which focused on the role of urban removal in creating the hardrock residential segregation that forced 1957.  The rogue’s gallery of real estate moguls like Billy Rector and Housing Authority officials who were later bankers like Finley Vinson was sobering and disturbing.

All of which reminds me of a universal and humbling truth about organizing in any workplace or any community:  there is always a history of struggle, if you but ask deeply and listen carefully.  No matter how unique each effort and individual, we always stand on strong shoulders even though time may have obscured and bowed them.  If we look we can find them, but it’s a comfort in organizing when you come to the realization that they are always there underneath you, steadying your progress, and saving you from a harder fall.

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Southern Tenant Farmers Union Museum

IMG_0208 Tyronza, Arkansas Working closely with Sam Mitchell of Ottawa, Ontario since the Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center, we have been stewarding the H.L. Mitchell Scholarship Fund in honor of his father, one of the founders and the long time chief organizer of the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU), who I tracked down and got to know well in the 1970’s after founding ACORN, nonetheless I was still surprised when he mentioned on the phone over the last year that there was an STFU Museum now in Tyronza, Arkansas.  How wonderful, and unbelievable, I thought, and of course promised that the next time I was anywhere near, I would be there, and so I was to my great delight.

The STFU was one of the seminal farm labor organizations of America along with the great movements of the Texas

Mitch's dry cleaners

Mitch's dry cleaners

Alliance leading to the Populists and in a continuum that ended with the United Farm Workers’ Union of Cesar Chavez, and has many chapters left to write I hope.  The STFU was founded by 11 white and 7 black sharecroppers in 1934 in Tyronza in Poinsett County in the flat Mississippi River delta country of eastern Arkansas and quickly came to notice in those years by striking in various locations to force planters to raise the price per bale of cotton to the sharecroppers.  These battles were bitter, sometimes violent, struggles.  The STFU though founded in Tyronza had moved its headquarters to Memphis within a year or so due to constant harassment and threats.   You get the picture, I’m sure.  This was an amazing organization in its time and the lessons of its success and failures along with the special treat of my getting to know Mitch in the last years of his life were seminal in the development of ACORN.

Linda Hinton, STFU Museum official, showing the union's history

Linda Hinton, STFU Museum official, showing the union's history

Linda Hinton, the assistant director of the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, as it is formally called, walked us through the facilities.  The Arkansas State University under Ruth Hawkins and others had made creating this museum a priority in the early years of the 21st century and opened the museum in 2006.  They invested $3 M in the enterprise and acquired not only Clay East’s old gas station and H.L. Mitchell’s old dry cleaners operation and his dad’s barber shop, but the Tyronza bank next door to build out the facilities.  The museum was handled very well, not only setting the context for the development of the union and its fights, but also giving a sense of the cotton industry in general and its labor practices from slavery to sharecropping in the museum.

I was delighted, but am still realistic even as I’m awe of the ASU commitment.   There’s no question you have to be looking for the museum to find it in Tyronza.  There’s no sign on the road and the road is off of I-55 and on the way to Jonesboro, but that’s about all I can say for it.  There are so few institutions like this though that document the struggle of people for justice and power, that it’s worth the trip, and I’ll definitely be spreading the word!

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