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Oral History Interview with Clay East, September 22, 1973. Interview E-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • Abstract
    Clay East spent most of his childhood in Tyronza, Arkansas. The son of a farmer and store merchant, East became a founding member of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. In this interview, East discusses a wide variety of topics, but focuses primarily on life in Tyronza, his conversion to socialist politics, and his involvement with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. East begins by offering some general comments about the first meeting of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, held in a small schoolhouse in Tyronza. He addresses the nature of opposition to the organization of tenant farmers and sharecroppers. From there he moves back in time to address his family history and life in Tyronza. During the World War I years, East went to school in Blue Mountain, Mississippi. After graduating from Mississippi Heights Academy around 1917, East spent a few months at the Gulf Coast Military Academy. During the 1920s, East learned the service station business, and by the end of the decade, he owned his own successful service station. By that time, Tyronza was being ravaged by the Great Depression. Although East's business survived (and even prospered), others in the area were not as fortunate. While East watched the tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the area suffer, his friend H. L. Mitchell introduced him to socialism. East was a quick convert, and during the early 1930s, he and Mitchell helped to organize the Socialist Party in Arkansas. Emboldened by a visit to the area by a leading figure of American socialism, Norman Thomas, East and Mitchell decided to organize a union of tenant farmers and sharecroppers. East describes in detail how the initial meetings of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union were organized and his work towards encouraging membership. East was actively involved in the union only during its first years, but he offers an insider perspective on the union's formation and its early activities. In particular, he focuses on the issue of integration in the union (which he advocated) and the visceral opposition the union faced from farm managers, planters, and local law enforcement, particularly during conflicts in Marked Tree and Forrest City, Arkansas.
    Excerpts
  • First brush with socialism and family work ethic
  • Impact of involvement in the Southern Tenant Farmers Union on East's service station
  • Avoiding conflict with union opposition
  • Life in a small rural town during the early twentieth century
  • Learning the business of service stations and converting to socialism
  • Impact of Great Depression on tenant farmers and sharecroppers in Tyronza, Arkansas
  • Role of sharecropping in Depression-era Tyronza, Arkansas
  • Race and politics during the early 1930s in Tyronza, Arkansas
  • Origination of idea to start the Southern Tenant Farmers Union
  • Determining whether the Southern Tenant Farmers Union should integrate
  • Organizing farmers and sharecroppers despite planter intimidation
  • Tension between the Southern Tenant Farmers Union and farm management
  • Opposition to strike in Forrest City, Arkansas
  • Learn More
  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
  • Database of all Southern Oral History Program Collection interviews
  • Subjects
  • Trade-unions--Minority membership
  • Trade-unions--Southern States
  • Southern Tenant Farmers' Union
  • Socialist Party (Ark.)
  • The Southern Oral History Program transcripts presented here on Documenting the American South undergo an editorial process to remove transcription errors. Texts may differ from the original transcripts held by the Southern Historical Collection.

    Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.